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OUR BOOKS > RUNNING THE RACE

Running The Race

Novel
Written by Chester Eagle
Cover by Vane Lindesay
DTP work by Karen Wilson
Electronic publication 2010 by Trojan Press
Circa 167,000 words

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Because Running The Race is a somewhat episodic book, readers may, if they so wish, download chapters separately instead of/as well as the complete book. The chapters are listed here for downloading:

The Start
Near The Finish
Slipping Out Sideways
The School Forgot
Music At Night
A Farming Story ...
... And An Alternative ...
What Had Once Been Their Town
Erica
Keith and Wilma
Enter Diego, of Guatemala City
Hidden Signs Of A Painter
One Year Nearer The End
Achieving Mount Macedon
The World In Its Chaos
Salvation – The Possibilities
Magda Encounters A Child
Neil and Denis
Dick Hart Gets Promotion

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To read some extracts from the book click here:
The Start
Music At Night
Chantelle Made Her Move
Diego And Jane, Diego And Prue
Carl Visits Bendigo
Magda Encounters A Child
An Ex-Student
Rhyll Takes A Step ...
... And So Does Tim ...

To read about the writing of this book click here.

The Start

There’d have been a hundred boys and girls gathered on the flat beneath the school, and someone was dragging a stand into position for Dick Hart. He, tall, genial, Catholic, and fit enough to run himself, stood ready, a starting pistol in his hand. ‘Is it loaded, Arnie?’ he said to a burly man; ‘I don’t want to make a fool of myself!’ They laughed. Dick climbed up on the stand, a judging stand for a race like the hundred yard dash, but turned the other way. He blew a light blast on a whistle, then called, affably enough, ‘Good morning everybody. Welcome to the round-the-town run! I know everybody calls it a race, but it isn’t. The only prize is for finishing and we’re hoping everyone will manage that. Try not to drop out. If you get puffed, sit down and have a rest. But make sure you get back on your feet, because we’ll be waiting for you! The run,’ he told the gathering, ‘ends at the canteen, and the Mothers Club is at work right now getting ready for you. Now. You’ve been told where to run, if you’re in any doubt, keep an eye out for the flags and markers, don’t go too fast too early and get yourselves knocked up, it’s not a race, it’s a run. Treat it as a stroll if you like. It’s okay to walk for a while!’

He beamed. He meant them to enjoy themselves. He raised his pistol.

‘Are you ready? Ready to run around the town, a distance of four and a quarter miles. Ready? Go!’

He fired the pistol and the young people set off, better athletes scrambling to get near the lead as they crossed the park, jogged onto the side road, past the ancient tannery, across the highway where two policemen were holding back traffic, and along the edge of the town. Putting the starting gun in his pocket, Dick said to a group of teachers who’d watched the start, ‘Cup of tea, ladies and gentlemen. The mothers have kindly invited us to take tea with them as soon as the youngsters are out of sight. It should be ready now.’ Still genial, patrician in his role, he urged the teachers up the slope to the school where the mothers, he thought, were getting ready to pour.

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Music At Night

Julie Cardross missed Joanna more than Trevor MacMurray or his children did. She kept telling herself that she’d never felt trapped until Joanna had gone away. They wrote to each other and there were phone calls, until Julie knew she was using her missing friend to do no better than pour out her certainty that she’d made a mistake. Her husband had bought into a dental practice in the town, so he was busy enough, but Julie, in the years before her marriage, had been a student of the piano and now she was in the position of trying to develop her music when nobody in the town cared for what she played. There were simply no opportunities, and she caught herself getting stressed over things that shouldn’t have worried her. A Yamaha in the lounge was the piano she practised on, and she told her husband that she wanted a concert grand. He pointed out that in their days in Melbourne she’d never had a concert grand. She’d certainly played them at the Con., but in her home, never; she’d had an upright only half as good as the one she now possessed. When she spoke of returning to Melbourne he pointed out that he’d spent a considerable sum in buying into the practice and would only get the money out if he and his colleagues developed it. That would take a while. Couldn’t she, he said, use the period usefully? Get on top of a repertoire she mightn’t otherwise have time to learn, practise hard, and then, when they went back to the city, surprise people with what she’d made of her years away? When he said this she simply stood up and, as chance would have it, a timber truck rolled past their house, on its way to a mill. They heard the siren of the mill as it sounded, four times a day, to start and end the spinning of enormous saws. ‘Poor trees,’ she said, sitting down helplessly, ‘there’s nobody to protect them.’ Her husband felt her grief invading him. ‘Julie, Julie,’ he said, but nothing more would come. ‘Julie ...’

‘I’m trapped,’ Julie said. ‘You didn’t mean to do it, but that’s what we did when we came down here. Nobody wants my music. They don’t want me!’ Her children came into the room, two little boys. They sat beside their mother, who said, over their heads to their father, ‘Everyone says this is a good place for children to grow up. What that means is that it’s a bad place to be grown up. The walls push in closer every year, until they’re squeezing your brain into a dried, hard little kernel. Like all the brains in this place. We’re going to have to get the boys out, Geoffrey, before the damage is done.’ Geoffrey Cardross stood up, torn in two. He’d thought the move would be the making of their lives, the creation of happy family years, of learning to live in accord with everything around them, and he’d ruined things for his wife. It wouldn’t be easy to get out of what he’d bound himself to and he was aware that she might, in her sickly sorrow for herself, have been permanently damaged. She had a cupboard full of Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy and Fauré, and these pages never saw the light of day. Was music dead, in her life? Had he killed it? He hoped not, but how would he know?

Julie ran into Carl Nelson outside the chemist’s. He was most affable and asked if she’d had contact with their mutual friend Joanna. She told him about her phone calls and letters, leading on to her problem with the town’s lack of any music that mattered to her. He surprised her. He had a lounge which he described as huge, and if she bought herself a grand piano, she could house it at his place and play whenever she liked. ‘Whether I’m there or not. You can have a key, not that I lock the house very often, usually only when I’m going to be away for a while.’ She was suspicious, and yet it sounded like a heaven-sent idea. He explained. ‘If you listen to people who’ve lived here for a while, I don’t have any right to own my house. It used to be owned by Doctor Mackay, it was a family home and that’s how everyone thinks of it. Oddly enough, so do I. I’ll get married one of these days and that’s where my family will live. In the meantime, it’s empty, it’s full of resonance, I can assure you music sounds well in the house because I play the gramophone all the time. I feel I’m bringing the place to life when I put on music, so I’d love it if you were doing the same thing on a piano. It’s a regret of my life that I never learned to play.’

So what was she to do? She thanked him, and took her problem home. Days passed. Nights. Then her husband woke up one night, hearing unexpected sound. There was nobody beside him. He tried to get his mind into operation; there it was! Music, something well known of Chopin. His wife was playing again, and it was the middle of the night. What was she playing? He never knew the names, but he could tell what she was up to. She was amusing herself by trying to have the music two ways – assertive and in strict tempo, a performance with authority to a crowded hall; and, by way of contrast, in keeping with his wife’s divided mind, little hesitations and moments of consideration entering the confidence of the notes. She was playing in a way that resolved her doubts by expressing them. It’s what music’s for, I suppose, he told himself as he got out of bed and moved to the passage where he could see his wife.

She was mad, and she was happy; he could see both sides of her as she played, sitting forward, sitting back. He also saw that he was not alone in listening. One of his boys was at another doorway, trying to work out what was going on. Why was his mother, who hadn’t touched the piano in weeks, banging away like this? Something about the child’s observation relieved Geoffrey Cardross; he could be an understanding parent instead of a puzzled partner. He moved around the passage until he was behind the child. He picked him up, saying, ‘Bed again, darling. Mummy’s happy with her piano. You can listen as you go back to sleep.’ The boy wanted to know why his mother was playing when everyone was supposed to be asleep. ‘You’ll do things in the dark, one day, that will surprise yourself,’ Geoffrey told his son, tucking him in. He couldn’t stop himself adding, ‘Everyone does. It’s what we’re made of.’

He had to go back to bed himself, having said that, but another part of him wanted to be Julie’s husband, making a claim. What claim? He had no rights, he could only plead, but what for? Didn’t he want her to have music? Yes, surely. Who didn’t? But the town? The town wouldn’t understand, he knew. He’d seen Julie’s face as she’d played and there was something in it he felt a need to protect. She was mad. She’d made herself sane by giving way to something unrestrained. The middle of her brain had needed the middle of the night to give it full expression. The piano was rumbling and rippling in the other room. Julie had described herself as ‘trapped’; the piano, the music, had set her free. She’d felt incarcerated, and so, to liberate herself, she’d found a spot in the middle of the night, when darkness covered the town in all its mediocrity, its ruthlessness in smashing people’s dreams. Sadly, and he ached terribly when he realised this, he mustn’t show himself to his wife. She hadn’t told him what she was going to do, she hadn’t shared her decision with him, she very possibly hadn’t made a decision at all, just woke in the dark and sensed that darkness could be made light, that black notes could be brought to life from the whiteness of the page if she struck the keys as she’d been longing to do. He asked himself, knowing he must keep himself in the bed and not break in on her, if she’d play again tomorrow night, and the night after. Was this the beginning of something, or a solitary expression? Chopin was with her in the other room. The mighty dead, the mystics, the geniuses who’d created a musical tradition, and the thousands of violinists, harpists, clavecinistes, trumpeters and what have you who’d played music down the centuries were hovering above the little town where he lived, and he knew his house was blessed, but felt none the better for that.

His wife was crazy, but crazy was only what people said it was. He hoped his neighbours were asleep because if they weren’t, and they’d heard her music, sonorous and spectacular, they’d know that unusual spirits had been abroad. They’d hold him responsible. He would have to represent the town in controlling, in managing his wife, with delicacy and understanding, of course. This repelled him. He was on her side ...

Or was he? He really wasn’t sure. He hoped she wouldn’t play again the following night. He hoped the small hours Chopin wouldn’t happen again, would be a one-off occurrence, easily relegated to legend – ‘that night when I woke up and you weren’t beside me, and I heard you playing in the lounge ...’ and so on.

And so on. How far, how far away, would the events of this night travel, till they were finished, done with, behind? He didn’t know. Who could say?

Julie played again, for weeks, unpredictably. Watching her, or whispering in bed at nights, as they made love, or didn’t, before they slept, he had no idea. Music, tonight, or not? If so, what music? His marriage embraced a mystery. A part of Julie was out of control. What did marriage mean? Geoffrey was married to Julie. The town knew this, so their expectations invaded what happened between the couple. Marriage was social. It drew its meanings from what people around a marriage – Geoffrey and Julie, any couple! – expected.

Part of Julie had withdrawn from the agreement; this Geoffrey knew. Yet she hadn’t gone far. Her music was played in the house, and at night. Geoffrey was aware that another man had offered Julie a room in his house, because she’d told him. At the time he’d been almost as attracted to the idea as she had, but as the night playing continued, he found himself pleased that whatever was going on was restricted to the house. He wasn’t ashamed of Julie’s playing, but he wanted it kept close.

In the marriage. It was a part of the marriage over which he had no control, and knew that Julie didn’t have any either. What was she doing? Then he noticed that there were times when she’d go to the piano during the day to work on passages that had troubled her during the night. He took this to be a good thing. The mystery was emerging into the light of day. He asked her what it was with the Beethoven that she needed to work on. She opened the piano for a passage from the composer’s thirtieth sonata, one of the late ones. ‘After the Hammerklavier,’ she said. ‘That was the last time he seemed bothered about this earth ... on the piano, at least. It’s a matter of his hands being able to do something I can’t. Listen.’

Julie played a passage and Geoffrey thought he understood. ‘There is something wrong, there. Or that’s how it sounds to me. Is there anything you can do about it?’

‘I’m not sure yet. I keep asking myself how he meant that passage to go. He had bigger hands than I do. More than that, I think he really had more brain connections to his fingers. He must have, to make sense of some of the things he did.’ Looking at her husband, she turned her hands to another passage, with trills breaking out everywhere. ‘Out of control, we might say, but the music’s been published for others to play. He’s telling us it needs to be done because there’s something he’s determined to say. It’s why he’s great. When he made up his mind to do something, it got done.’

It more than told him about her strength, it drew a line. Nobody was to interfere. When Geoffrey suggested a concert, she flashed at him, ‘In the city? Or down here?’ He knew he meant ‘down here’ because he wanted people to know how good his wife was – meaning, of course, that she wasn’t mad, as they would certainly think, playing when she did – but he said, ‘Wherever you wish.’ What else could he say without being disloyal?

She was putting him through a trial. The town they lived in was a huge, but limiting, agreement. Life, which everyone knew needed to be kept under control, went no further than this. Pubs, barbecues, timber mills, dairy farms, wildflower walks, and sporting clubs ...

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Chantelle Made Her Move

Chantelle made her move to college when a vacancy occurred, a few weeks later. She showed her parents around, then they sat under a tree. ‘Another enormous change,’ Keith said to his wife, and the daughter who was taking on a tradition they didn’t know about. Wilma noticed a couple of students acknowledging her daughter with a lifted hand or a meeting of eyes. The process had begun. They’d been a tight family, they’d lost Joe, and now they were letting Chantelle go. Where was she going, though? It was easy to say she was off to find her future, but Wilma had trained her family away from clichés. She had a feeling that her daughter was going to become like the people around her, and who were they? For perhaps the first time in her life she began to admit the force of tradition. ‘Janet Clarke’, where Chantelle was living, was known as a ‘hall’; the old-fashioned word came from somewhere Wilma and Keith, early Monash graduates, didn’t know. The word led back into the past, like a lightless tunnel, releasing vanished thoughts into a world that had forgotten them. Reformers can’t stop the past having its influences because for the most part they can’t be seen. Sitting under the tree at Janet Clarke Hall, Wilma and Keith could feel them. It was Wilma’s habit to confront ideas, and Keith’s to grumble about them, but they could sense that Chantelle’s new world would be subtle. Keith felt awkward. He picked some grass seeds out of his socks, wondering how they got there, and why it mattered. He began to study the youngsters going past, dressed unobtrusively, but well enough. He sensed they had better in their wardrobes so that no occasion would catch them out. He and Wilma had assured their daughter that they looked forward to meeting her new friends but would they ever get the chance? Keith had a feeling, based on what he was like as a young man, that a selection process cut in as to which friends were shown to one’s parents. Besides, he’d studied Science and switched to Engineering, Wilma had done Commerce, and now their daughter was doing Arts. Whatever that meant. Arts was where all the theorists, the social engineers and the would-be experts on the human race found their haven. Arts? What could come of that? Something would; their daughter, sitting with them on this last day of their already-broken family, would graduate one day, of that he could be certain, and, whatever it was that had become her basis, it would be the foundation of a life – the one Chantelle was going to lead.

Chantelle would be a University of Melbourne person, and that meant something. Quite a lot. Janet Clarke had been the wife of a landed knight in the area where the city’s airport now stood, it was said that the cricketing tradition of The Ashes had begun on a visit to his property by a touring team in the days when people spoke of England as ‘home’. White civilisation hadn’t built very much in those days, but it was building, and it recreated what it knew from the old country, and its institutions were recreations of what the pioneering colonisers felt simply had to be rebuilt in the new land. Much of what they did was foolish, or at least quaint, to the modern mind, but their visions were the first for the new society and everything that came later had to stand on or beside what they’d done. Chantelle was to be a resident of Janet Clarke Hall. Chantelle had lost her brother. Chantelle was in the process of losing one past and gaining another. How wise, how right, had her decision been? And, to put it bluntly, how useful had her parents been in her decision?

Keith thought that the best thing he and Wilma had been able to do when their daughter was making this decision which would affect generations yet unborn was to keep out of the way. Not to meddle. That was wise, and good, Keith thought, but now, as they sat with their daughter, their once-little girl, he felt that their seat, their bench under an elm, a tree of England, not their own land, was a place of attention to the world of spirits that watched over mortals’ confusion. Spirits! Keith didn’t believe in such crap; this meant that he did, but instead of letting them into his mind, he battled to keep them out. It was simply another way of acknowledging their existence. Feeling helpless, he wanted to cry. Instead, he said, ‘Why are we sitting out here? Where everyone can look at us? Why don’t we go somewhere for a cup of coffee? Tea?’ He could hardly have sounded more desperate. His wife looked at him silently, his daughter said, ‘We can go inside now father. I wanted you to feel the atmosphere, though. The place has a lot, I can feel it seeping into me already.’ Her mother smiled at her daughter noticing the changes as they happened, and agreed that they could now with profit go within, again, to Chantelle’s room. ‘You can tell us if there’s anything you need.’ So they walked the passages that would delineate the young woman’s days, they noticed her greeting other young women as they passed, and they arrived at Chantelle’s room, small enough and simple, with a single bed through an alcove, and a desk of considerable proportions to the fore. Chantelle patted it with her dainty hand. ‘I’ll be spending an awful lot of time here.’ The desk lamp her parents had bought her years before had made the move to the residential hall. Some clothes Keith recognised were here and there. ‘Not many books yet,’ he said, wondering why this was. Students’ lives were supposed to be swamped by books. Chantelle said, ‘I had a big clean-out before I left home, as you know. I’m only at the start of the acquiring stage. Don’t you worry, dad, the shelves will fill!’ ‘What with?’ her father said, as if there could be an answer when there couldn’t, except some empty statement like ‘whatever the future brings’, and that wouldn’t do, would it, when he and Wilma were about to leave their daughter to get on with her life, a work-in-progress that they, her parents, were relinquishing.

The sadness of it hit Keith again, though this time he felt there must be something better than crying. Anything was better. The afternoon, their visit, were supposed to be joyful. They couldn’t leave Chantelle depressed. She had to feel supported. Her father looked at Wilma. His eyes told her, since she was used to reading him, I don’t know what to do so it’s over to you. Wilma stood. ‘Don’t bother about the coffee darling. We’ll go now. You’ve got lots to do. Just get on with it. You know we’re behind you, always. Stay in touch.’ Chantelle felt a clutching at her heart and at the very same moment an exultant feeling of release. A surge of joy ran through her and a surge of sadness because what was good for her was making her father and mother unhappy. They were parents, after all, and she’d be a parent one day, she supposed, so that the moment she was living through in one way would come back in later years to be experienced from the other side. ‘Thanks, mum and dad, for letting me go. I won’t forget anything, ever. You can be sure of that.’ She led them down the passage again, not taking much notice, this time, of the other young women who were about, and when they got to the front door of the Hall, already an ancient place in an almost babyishly young country, she held her father’s hand as she kissed him, then embraced her mother with all her heart. The open door stood watch over the parting, then allocated to the parents a bright sunlight and the over-arching heavens of Australia, and, to the daughter, the passage she would come to know well, and the room which was already hers, and in which she’d create the future which was to be her inheritance.

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Diego and Jane, Diego and Prue

Diego got his car, and was able to spend weeknights with Jane. Occasionally though he stayed at the bush camp, if there was reason to make an early start. One Monday morning, after a loving weekend, he arrived at the timber camp very early to find a fifteen year old looking into his tent. Challenged, the boy said his mother had sent him to see if Diego was awake, because she needed help with a tree that had fallen onto another tree during the night, and was threatening the shed with machinery and equipment inside. Diego drove the lad back to the farm he’d already passed, and met Prue Kitchener at the gate. She introduced herself and showed Diego the trees and the shed. He scratched his head in the way of the men he worked with. ‘Tricky job, but we’ll find a way. How are you off for ropes?’

She had ropes and he noticed how familiar she was with everything in the shed. He knew she’d been working the property since the death of her husband, but he hadn’t given it much thought; he was either working or in a rush to get back to Jane. This time, Diego and his men spent a couple of hours on the trees endangering Prue’s shed. They used the ropes to lower the branches they cut, sometimes dropping them on the ground, sometimes resting them on the shed roof until they could toss them off, or swing them aside. It was painstaking work, and Prue invited them back to the house when it was done. Diego felt he had to go but the others said they should get back to the work they hadn’t started. So Diego found himself in Prue’s kitchen, with Prue’s boy Graeme, a youth of fifteen, beside him and her daughter Samantha, six, across the table, and plainly curious about this man in her mother’s kitchen. When the girl went off to get something to show the visitor, Prue explained that her daughter was unused to having a man about the house; she had only faint memories of her father before he died.

There were a couple of times in the following fortnight when young Graeme Kitchener asked Diego what to do about some problem, so that he sensed he was an object of curiosity in the isolated farmhouse. He mentioned this to Jane when he was home and noted how attentively she asked about his interaction with the Kitcheners. He felt she was investigating something he couldn’t see. ‘What is it?’ he said to his love; ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ Jane smiled faintly. ‘Keep your eyes open. If you don’t, you might find yourself in a trap.’

‘Who’d set a trap for me? Look at the car I drive, it was the cheapest that would still run.’

Jane looked at him as if he’d been born retarded. ‘You’re an unusual man. There’s so many things I don’t need to tell you that I sometimes think you and I are going to go on for a long time. Other times, you’re as blind as anyone else.’

‘Blind? What don’t I see?’

‘The woman who runs this farm where you’re working, what does she want? Tell me, you must have worked it out by now.’

‘It’s not so much what she wants as what she needs.’

‘All right then, what does she need?’

He sat back in his chair. ‘So much. So very much. Just about everything ...’

‘Anything special?’

‘Money. She hasn’t got any. Workers. She does everything herself. It wears her out, it must. How she keeps going I never know.’

‘Ever heard of hope?’

‘What’s she got to hope for?’

Jane didn’t bother answering. She took four peaches, a sharp knife, and cut the fruit into slices. A bowl received them as she dropped them, one by one. Diego knew it was a way of making him think. ‘I’m sorry, I’m too stupid, you’re going to have to say it. Like the men say, right between the eyes.’

‘She’s waiting for you to make a move.’

‘A move? We’re going to be there for months, probably.’

‘That’ll give her time, then.’

‘Time?’

‘To plant the seed of thought.’

Somewhere inside himself he was squirming, and he knew it. ‘Seeds grow.’

‘They do, don’t they. She’s got two children, and you say the little girl ...’

‘Sam.’

‘... needs a man around the place. So does her mother, you’ve told me that already.’

Starting to see the drift of her thoughts, he said, ‘And suddenly there’s a camp not far from her property. A bit of bush never been opened up before and there’s a row of tents ...’

‘And who is it she’s interested in?’

He scoffed. ‘Not me, believe me, not me.’ He tried to laugh. ‘I drive past quick as a flash. When I’m going to work, I’ve just come from here. When I’m leaving work, I’m heading back here, quick as I can. Simple as that!’

She was getting annoyed with him. ‘Nothing’s ever that simple.’ She dropped half the peaches into a second bowl and pushed it to him. ‘Should I put poison in these or let nature take its course?’

‘Nature’ was a word he felt strongly about. ‘When we saw each other that first night, that was natural forces. They swept us together ...’

‘They could sweep us apart. They probably will.’

He thought of her pointing out the mountain on the horizon, and telling him she came from somewhere further back; of the feeling he’d had that morning, and often enough since, that she was on a long journey, and that he wasn’t adventurous enough, and the pain this caused him because he’d found, in her, the woman he could worship, and worship, not the establishment of a career, whether for him or her, was what he’d long been seeking.

‘She’s got a silly name. Prue Kitchener. She doesn’t mean anything to me. I helped her, I told you this, the whole gang, we helped her move a tree that was going to crush her shed. Apart from that, a few odd jobs, it’s nothing. Nothing at all. I don’t read her mind. If she was smart, she’d have sold up and moved to a town where her children could go to school more easily ...’

He rattled on. Jane got herself a spoon, handed another to him, and started eating. He kept talking because he couldn’t stop himself, but he felt he was digging a grave that his wreckage would be pushed into before too long. ‘Isn’t it so? Everything I say to you, isn’t it true?’

‘Yes of course.’

‘This is our first fight.’

She stung him unexpectedly. ‘Our last, probably.’

‘What?’

‘Diego, I’m more ambitious than you.’ This made him look glum, hang-dog, perhaps. ‘It’s simply a matter of how things are. No blame, no fault, just a fact. I’m working for a little provincial rag. I have to keep my mouth shut, I keep my mouth shut. But not forever. I showed you the horizon. I’ve got my eye on other horizons. I’ve got a long way to go. This woman ...’

‘Prue, she says it’s a name she wishes she didn’t have ...’

‘Prue! Prudence!’

‘That’s what she doesn’t like. She says she’s not.’ Jane snorted. ‘Her family name’s Kitchener, it was her husband’s name, she says she’s not a kitchen type of person ...’

He could see that Jane was enjoying the glibness of his defence, but why was he defending? He wasn’t keeping anything out!
Then he remembered little Samantha, Sam, staring longingly at him, wanting to ride in his car, wanting him to see her things, to play with her, give her a share of the apple he was eating, and he recognised at last the yearning of the Kitchener family for a man to replace the one they’d lost. Their needs had settled on him. He was the chosen. The elect, select, the wanted, needed, who had only to spread his arms around them, a family lacking a man, to make them whole again, full of love for him, their source of stability. He’d have a wife, a family, a farm, a place in a country where he was an outsider, something to do that wasn’t stupid, like his efforts to turn himself into a football machine, he’d have a reason, a purpose, a centre to his life ...

No! He wanted to be as he was, he wanted Jane ...

... but Jane had seen what he hadn’t allowed himself to see, she’d played it all out in her mind, something he realised she was good at, and really, Jane had finished with him. She’d reached the end of the course and was waiting for him to get there too. He said, illogically, but she was following well enough, ‘When I got to this town, I heard a story about the children of the school all going for a run. I liked the story. I heard it a few times, this one and that told me about it. I put myself in the story. I found out all the details, well not all, but a few, and I put myself in the details ...’

He was getting mixed up, but she was listening patiently, wanting to know ...

‘I told people I was one of the second batch to finish. I was number twenty-two, I told them. Twenty two was my age at the time. Nobody noticed that. I came in at number twenty two, I told them. I didn’t run in the race at all, it was before my time. But I liked the story ...’

‘Not a bad yarn,’ she conceded.

‘I thought if I put myself in their story I am part of their town. I am not part of their town. I am not part of your town either.’ Suddenly he was crying. He’d never see the little settlement in the mountains where Jane had come from, extracted herself from, in an act of determined self-creation. ‘I’m not ambitious. I don’t want to be anybody big, and high. I have no plans that way at all. As you know.’

She was looking at him with interest, listening, too, to his last song.

‘Perhaps I will surprise you when I say that I will not marry the lady with the farm. I will not be daddy to her children ...’

‘You’ll have to say goodbye to them. You can’t just run out.’

‘I will say goodbye to them, I will say goodbye to my mates I work with. I’ll sell my car, I’ve got a few dollars in the bank, I’ll buy a ticket and go home ...’

‘Where is home, by the way?’

‘Guatemala City. That’s where I call home. It’s a dump. I don’t want to go back there except it’s where I belong. I don’t belong here with you. I wanted to, I still want to, a part of me, but I don’t. In the morning, I go back to the bush. A few days, I’m on a plane. Cross the Pacific, fly down to where I came from.’ He said with indescribable bitterness, ‘Home!’

He was hoping he could get past the Kitcheners’ place unnoticed, but Prue was checking on the cattle. She gave him a wave. He waved back. It meant the understanding was there, which meant that he’d have to drop in at some time ... and tell her he was leaving.

At once he looked around. The town he’d come from had a frontier, a whole nation, of bush to its north. This nation was populated not by people, but by trees. This country he was leaving was full of trees. Bush, not people. It affected the way everyone thought, even himself, in the years he’d been here. He and the men he worked with were cutting down trees all the time, and more were growing up to replace them. There were national parks everywhere. It was a nation of trees, and he’d be glad to leave, or so he told himself.

Crap. He wanted to stay. He’d become like the men he worked with – sociable only when there were people around, but happier to be on their own. It was an odd thing that a dozen men could camp together in a few metres of clearing, and somehow be separate. What did that say? He looked at the bush as he drove to the camp. It meant they loved their isolation. They could accept being social as long as there was somewhere to be alone. Oddly enough, the men in Diego’s camp were alone together. That was their achievement. It could only be done by a group who understood each other’s rules. He was going to miss this when he got back to the place he’d come from. Nobody would understand it there. He wondered how he’d cope; he supposed he’d fall back on the ways he’d known when he was growing up. When you’ve got no choice it’s not hard to know what to do. Diego reached the camp, was greeted by a few who were out and about, like Prue Kitchener, then others appeared from their tents, fires were lit, or restarted, chops were eaten, tea was drunk, and they got down to work.

By late afternoon they had logs cut and stacked, and reckoned they could call it a day. Fires were restarted at the camp and the clearing began to fill with smoke. ‘Seeya tomorrow, boys,’ Diego called to his mates, then drove away, but not far, because he had a call to make.

Prue’s boy Graeme was excited when Diego came to the kitchen door, saying he’d call his mum, but standing there trying to remember what he’d wanted to ask the man who took up a lot of his thinking time. Samantha came into the room and gave a squeal of delight, bringing her mother to the room. ‘Cup of tea,’ announced Prue in the way of covering indecision with the appearance of firm decision. Diego put the hat he was carrying on an empty chair. Prue indicated that he too should occupy a chair. She saw that he was less than comfortable, and wondered what had brought him to call. ‘I better tell you straight away,’ he said. ‘I’m leaving.’ The Kitchener family looked at him. ‘Is the mill moving you?’ Prue put to him, and he shook his head. ‘Going back where I come from. Between America and South America. That’s where it is.’ It sounded so odd that his host didn’t know what to say. ‘What’s brought this about?’ said Prue, trying to cope with his mood rather than the words he put before them. He rubbed his forehead, then he sat. ‘Good to be able to get a cuppa at the end of a day,’ he remarked, flying off at a tangent. ‘Something I’m going to miss when I get back ...’

‘Home’ was the word he couldn’t say ...

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Carl Visits Bendigo

Nothing came of the idea. He moved on to other things. If anyone wanted to write about a run around a town where he no longer lived, they could have it. He made a trip to Bendigo, one of his state’s regional cities, made wealthy by gold. The gallery was showing work by Hilda Rix Nicholas and he found her painting strongly supportive of sides of him that he’d begun to apologise for. Hilda Rix Nicholas had gone to Paris and London as a young woman, to study, as so many – and so few – of her compatriots had. A few men needed higher qualifications in the economy of the day, a few – richer – women felt they needed to attend finishing school. Art was the best finisher of all. War was close, and things didn’t go well for Hilda Rix Nicholas. Her sister died, then her mother. She became engaged to a man who went to France as an officer and within weeks of his arrival was shot. The catalogue told Carl that the young widow had slept on her late husband’s greatcoat for years, but she had returned to Australia all the same, and remarried. This time it was to a man with a property at Delegate, at the bottom of New South Wales. Carl had been through it in the days when he’d been exploring, looking for the new limits and undercurrents of his life, when he’d been searching for what he was going to be, a marvellous if disconcerting time, with considerable power to upset and overthrow fixed ideas. Delegate was linked in Carl’s mind with Suggan Buggan, Wulgulmerang, Black Mountain and all the other places he’d been with Sandy (Lochie) when he was exploring the Gippsland which kept itself well-hidden: apologised for, perhaps. There were no apologies in Hilda Rix Nicholas’s paintings, a-brim with the light of south-east Australia, bold with vistas and high vantage points, men, and women too, made demi-gods by their horses. Women who were confident and men who knew who they were. There was a painting with a man on a horse, looking at a broad valley, and in the centre of it, beside a stream, willows were maturing next to the house where, anyone could tell, could feel, the man lived with what he possessed, including a loving wife. The house was a home. The difference was a woman, and a woman wasn’t meant to be on her own any more than a man was. They belonged together. In giving love they took responsibility for each other, their children too, and those who worked for them. Man and woman were the two curving arcs that held up the heavens. There are such heavens, stars and skies anywhere in the world but none so blessed as those of Australia, which, in the eyes of a handful of Hilda Rix Nicholas’s generation, had long been waiting for settlement. Its golden age had come. There was a painting of her husband, a man in his fifties by then, classifying wool. A small white mound of it lay on a table before him, filled with light from above and also from his judgement; his eyes were shrewd. The painter loved her man, loved the fate which had brought her to the mountainous district when she might have failed, heart broken, many years before, with a dead man’s greatcoat given to her. She’d been able to make another start, in a remote spot in the colony she came from, a place unknown to the men who’d sent her first husband to die in France. The Empire was big, in those days, and chance might serve you up a second lot. It had served her well, after some awful opening dishes, and she’d recorded what she’d been given in a mood both possessive and grateful. Carl had stepped outside the gallery wondering who, if any, there were in the world of his time with such wonderful confidence to express and share. He looked at himself. No, not me; I’m not in her class for confidence. And yet, he thought, I can recognise what gave her confidence, I’ve been to the same places, or similar, and felt the same disparity between the tiny and the huge. He thought of his first and only visit to the schoolhouse at Suggan Buggan, a wooden shed with a huge fireplace. It had been a warm day so the missing boards hadn’t let in anything but the mildest air. No such gaps would have been allowed to stay unplugged in cold weather. And how much knowledge would be transferred to the children in their little shed? Little enough, Carl knew. If they learned to read, what books would be theirs to read in the surrounding homes? If they learned their tables, what new powers would be extended to them by the financial systems into which they were growing? They’d be servants of forces situated in England, keeping themselves afloat on the activities of those who worked remote properties in Australia. If they sensed anything limited, even wretched, in their circumstances, those youngsters growing at the junction point of two tracks, one leading to Sydney and the other to Melbourne, they could always ride away and offer themselves as sacrifices – new forms of sacrifice – to the empire to which they belonged.

Hilda Rix Nicholas had been proud of her place in the empire; more than that, she’d felt such pride in what she and her husband were doing that she and he, as her paintings made clear, could hand a tribute of nobility and idealism right back to the centre of the empire of which they were a part. A part? A glowing coal, a flower, any beacon at all, really, so long as it shone, was noticed, and wondered at ...

Carl went to his car, humbled. He’d expected the show to add to his historical knowledge, but hadn’t been ready for it to show him a world transformed. So that was the painter’s husband, classing wool? So that was their home, at the bottom, the heart, of a broad valley, with its mountains pressed hard against the top of the canvas, that was the painter, confident on horseback, and quite daring, it seemed, as captured by a camera and wielding a brush! Her jodhpurs, and the riding trousers of the men, in other pictures, had command in their very cloth. Those who wore them had power to say what would be done. Carl got in his car, started it. It was a Japanese Toyota, they never failed. A press of the key and the engine started. Remember the old days, the old cars ...

Not any more. The modern car gave none of those unreliabilities. The modern car was the driver’s slave, or perhaps, simply, his or her machine. It did what it was supposed to do without any pleading or subtleties of thought. Hilda Rix Nicholas must have loved the horses she rode at Delegate. The horses must have known they were loved. The men must have known how to give affection too, to dogs, horses, animals generally ...

... and in the centre of their lives, those who ran cattle stations, or sheep, big loosely settled properties with occasional streams meandering through, and tales spreading around like flies following manure, at the centre of their lives were homes, places where a woman, a man and their children made the only sense that could be made of human life, that is to say that it was an opportunity for the all-caring tenderness that carried life and love from one generation to the next..

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Magda Encounters A Child

... and Magda had an emptiness inside her, a space that had once, and briefly, been filled. When, if ever, would it be filled again? It was as if, having made an early false start she couldn’t find the starting line again. When people handed her babies to cuddle, or there were children to be played with, she was both tender, and inept. Inept because detached. What she was doing wasn’t her. It was part of what she would have been if she’d been allowed to continue the path she’d started to take. If she’d been allowed to continue that first pregnancy, the child would have told her what it needed, and she’d have provided, learning as she did. She’d been thrown off track in surrendering herself to what had been demanded, and she’d never really found the track since. Daily life was one long going through the motions. Where she’d once been spontaneous, she was now a follower. She found it hard to believe that men were really interested in her, and it seemed easier, and simpler, to follow the men whose needs were as quick and peremptory as her own. Sometimes, if they gave her money, she took it. For the most part, she didn’t ask. She knew that sex was two-sided, not a woman allowing a man to do what he wanted. She was talkative with men, but when intimacy approached, she needed to be pushed into the final decision: cornered, almost, because she wasn’t following a path of her own. That path, the one that was visibly, simply natural for her, had been obscured years before.

Her parents, having insisted on the abortion, watched its aftermath with growing concern. They were in the difficult position that, after ‘correcting’ their daughter’s mistake, they couldn’t get her to be what they thought was spontaneous, or ‘natural’, again. Nature, apparently had to be waited for. Other girls got married, had children, made the cycle revolve, but not Magda, no, she was waiting. Girlfriends said to her, ‘What are you waiting for?’ but they never got an answer, which meant that what she wanted wasn’t a nameable thing, but a state of mind, a release perhaps, that would come when it pleased, if it ever came at all.

Would Magda, perhaps, never have a child? Was the one aborted in the clinic the only one she was ever to produce? Her parents hoped not, they did all the encouraging things, they asked about people she talked with at work (the town’s biggest shop, then the City Council’s office, as a stenographer-typist), they encouraged the flow of chatter through the house where Magda lived, happily enough, it seemed with her parents, but they felt they were making no progress. None at all. The surface Magda showed the world was untouched and what was going on beneath they had no idea.

Then they noticed that she was going out with men of a different type. They were less than careful about shaving, they kept more wayward hours than the regular men Magda’s parents approved of, their cars were noisier, and they were keen on shooting. Some of them had utilities and one a small truck with spotlights on the cabin. Parents, the world over, are acutely aware of those who haven’t made the transition between the primitive, untransmuted forces of personality and the socialised versions of the same feelings that come with parenthood. It was a transition that Magda had never made, never got close to, really. Her parents realised that they had a strangely unformed daughter. Malformed? They felt it was too early to say. They wanted her happy, but that meant complete, and she was incomplete, so what could they do about that?

There are limits to what parents can do. Magda went out with her late-night shooting friends, leaving her parents to wonder if there were any other women in these parties, and if there were, why didn’t they ever meet them? On the one occasion Magda’s mother raised the matter, Magda said, ‘Good heavens, mother, I don’t go out to be available to all those men! If they’ve got ... needs ... of that sort, they needn’t expect me to make them happy. I get taken to places I wouldn’t see by myself. It’s an adventure for me.’ It wasn’t much of an answer, but it came readily enough to persuade – half-persuade – Magda’s mother not to worry to the point of interfering. Yet what else was there to do? Nothing?

Nothing. Then one night – a night when Magda was at home – there was an incident between a group of shooters and a police car sent out to investigate complaints from a farmer claiming there were people shooting on his property. Nobody had been injured but shots had been fired at the police car and the local paper printed photos of the bullet holes, and a sturdy sergeant standing by the damage with quite a bit to say about what might happen to people who put themselves outside the law. ‘It mighta made the Kellys famous, but believe me, that’s not going to happen here.’ Magda’s mother felt a tightening inside her; her daughter had some connection with this?

Magda said she didn’t have any idea what had happened, she’d been at home, nobody had told her anything, there was plenty of gossip at the office but unless you had real information you treated it as gossip and you were unwise to do anything else – all good, sound cover-up statements, but her mother was aware of something in the background. There had been a couple of phone calls, quietly and quickly dealt with by Magda, and a couple of visits by the spotlighting men she went out with, all very jovial, with the visitors coming inside for a cup of tea, and so on, but Magda’s mother knew that visits of this sort were conducted with the full flow of normal sociability so that a few words might be murmured in the appropriate ear, without anybody else aware. Something’s going on, and I’m being locked out, her mother knew, but couldn’t see a way to look inside whatever it was that was being kept from her. Nothing, probably. The whole town was built on a series of agreements about silence and communicability. If you missed out on something there was nothing you could do, except listen. Wait, and listen, and wait some more ...

Weeks passed, then the unexpected happened. A shooter called about nine o’clock one night and her mother asked Magda not to go. It was a mild autumn night, Magda said there was no reason why she shouldn’t enjoy herself, she hadn’t been out for ages ... that sort of thing. She got in the truck with spotlights on the cabin and it powered away.

Night has a different logic from day. The truck, driven by one of Magda’s men friends, a man who fancied her but wanted it to be something more than a lustful tick on a list, rushed out of town on the highway, meaning to turn down one of the lesser roads south-west of town, but, as the turn approached, he and Magda saw lights in the trees at the side of the road. They were pointing strangely. Magda’s companion, whom we shall call Jack, flicked the switch for a spotlight, and it became clear that a car had run off into the trees, and crashed. A car coming the other way had stopped to investigate, and then another. People from these cars had levered open the doors of the wreck to help those inside. The driver appeared to be dead. There were three front seat passengers, badly injured. The back seat was harder to investigate because that part of the car had been crushed by the tree in the impact. ‘They can’t have been here very long,’ Jack said, and ordered one of the other drivers to stop the next car heading back into town and tell them to get an ambulance on the way; we are speaking of a time before mobile phones. Other cars pulled over; a crowd began to form. Magda found herself in a heightened form of involvement, both a detached state, a separation from the behaviour of those around her, natural to them, and an awareness of being needed in a way she’d not known before. She wanted to help; she wanted to stay apart, and let the others do whatever came naturally. There were enough of them and they were doing the ghastly job well enough ...

An inner voice told her to go to the car. She got out of the truck that had brought her, and the spotlight projected her shadow onto the scene of the wreck. She went to the far side of the smashed car and tried to look in the back. Some fabric from the ceiling hung down, blocking her view. She grabbed it and tore it out, allowing her to see a woman of her own age sprawled on the seat, and, clinging to her, a child of two or three. Magda gasped, recognising the power of the child’s grip on its mother – her mother, for it was a girl – and felt, at the very same moment, a sense of being in the power of an urgent grip. She had been seized by a moment in a way she’d never known. The spotlight, though shining in her eyes, gave her a high-lit, dramatic sense of an event still to be shaped, in which she had a part. Magda slipped her way along the seat – the back seat – in the confined space of the crushed cabin, and whispered to the girl, ‘You’re all right now. I’m here for you!’ The things we say in crises are usually strange, because they are a part of our realisation, or understanding, when that is both instinctively guided, and therefore most true, while at the same time incomplete. The child said nothing, clinging to its mother who, though inert, was still warm. Magda reached an arm across the child’s back and began to murmur. She felt that though it could hardly be said to be listening, it was aware. ‘Mmmmm,’ she murmured in the girl’s ear. They had first to become attuned to each other. ‘Mmmmm.’ The child knew something was wrong and had turned to its mother. Something in the urgency of Magda’s commitment to the child told her the mother was dead. She knew this. The child was injured? There seemed something wrong with the way she lay on her mother. What would that be? She had no way of knowing. Murmuring in the girl’s ear, keeping her warm and trying to take hold of the girl’s attention, her desire for comfort, Magda was aware that, outside the wreck in which she lay, another vehicle, with powerful lights, had pulled up, an authoritative voice was speaking, and another answering, ‘Second stretcher, Tim.’ An ambulance. That was good, but something else was needed too. It was in her, in Magda, that the other thing would be found, because it had been there for years, waiting. What was it? Human consciousness is strange, because it reserves its deepest awarenesses for moments without expectation. Magda had come out against her mother’s wishes, because she’d found them uselessly negative, blocking something that was taking place inside her, some transition which they didn’t want to happen, and she did want to happen because often enough we can’t bear the lives we’re leading and must urge them to change in any ways we can ... and, in the very act of coming out on a shooting trip that might, later in the evening, become a love-making trip, she had put herself in the way of forces, coming like a wind from an unexpected, almost unheard-of quarter, which was to change the course of her life because allowing her to deal, in some way and to some extent, with the forces that had been latent, but blocked, in her for years.

‘Mmmmm,’ she said to the child and she knew it was listening to her, on the one side, and on the other, hearing nothing. ‘The tide’s turned,’ she thought, ‘for the kid and for me.’ She murmured some more and rubbed the girl’s back gently. ‘Are you hurt? Any pain? Any bits of trouble?’ She hardly knew what to say, and then again, she knew well enough. The child shook her head. Magda said, ‘There’s a man out there with a car. He’s going to take you to the doctor people. They’ll make sure you’re okay.’ The child hung onto its mother, but, gently urged by Magda’s loving arms, she turned. ‘You take me?’ Magda murmured again. The child murmured too. Magda said, ‘I’m going to lift you out now. It’s what mummy would want. Then we’ll put you on a bed and let the doctor people look at you. You’re going to be all right, darling. Hang onto me hard. I’m going to slide along the seat now, so hang on. Squeeze! Squeeze!’ The little girl squeezed. Magda slid along the seat, pushing with her feet when she could get some purchase, then, at the end of the seat, she slipped, then stood.

Tim Kallman, the ambulance driver, was surprised. ‘Anyone else in the back?’ Magda, clinging to the child which was almost, by now, her own, said, ‘This little one’s mother.’ She tried, with a movement of her hand, to indicate the status of the mother. ‘This is the one that matters. I’m going to lie on the bed in the ambulance, and hold her all the way. I’m not sure if she’s been hurt or not. We’ll have to do a check. Let’ s get going, fast!’ Tim was not quite clear what she meant but experienced enough to know when time mustn’t be wasted. ‘Lie down in there,’ he said. ‘We’ll put a strap over you. We’ll put a man in with you. Tell him anything you notice, anything you feel. It’s important that we know. Okay, let’s get that girl to hospital!’

It was weeks before Magda knew everything that had happened at the accident-site that night. Tim Kallman came to the hospital to see the girl she’d rescued, and he sensed that something inner to her had been helped towards recovery by what she’d done for the child. There were bruises, but no breakages. ‘She’s going to recover,’ Tim told Magda, ‘but the effects of shock can be very strange. You got her through the first, and worst stage ...’ He was curious to know about this strange woman, whom everyone told him was withdrawn, on the fringe of things and never tightly involved; it didn’t seem to fit with what she’d done, and what he’d seen of her since. ‘It was a case of knowing exactly what to do. And again, in my business, that’s rarer than you might think. You might think that when there’s a disaster, people would do things right. Often they do, but just as often they get everything wrong. I’m always surprised when things go right, for once, like they did with you.’

He was still curious, though he didn’t want to ask. ‘I knew what to do,’ she said. ‘When I was only a girl, I lost a child. This little one had lost her mother. She was me in reverse.’ Tim knew what she must intend him to understand about the child she’d lost. ‘Then it might have a good effect on you, permanently,’ he said. ‘With any luck.’

‘It was a rare stroke of luck. I don’t think that luck like I had that night happens very often.’ They discussed the girl, who’d been taken away by her grandmother to live in the city. Magda was going to see her in a fortnight’s time. ‘She’ll never be mine, she’ll always be her real mum’s, and she’ll be granma’s girl, but a little bit of her’ll be mine.’ She looked at the ambulance man. ‘Don’t you think?’

He knew what to say. ‘A little bit of her will always be yours. Hang onto it, hard!’

Magda was sure. ‘I thought it was lost forever. I’ve found it again, I’ll be hanging on!’

Magda was twenty six when these events took place. They marked a turning in her life. She visited the little girl – Camilla – in Melbourne, ‘to see how it would go’, she told her parents, and felt the bond she’d made with the child was still there. Camilla’s gran, mother of the mother who’d died in the crash, asked her back, she went, a number of times, and all of them felt that she was in a way a replacement for the missing woman. ‘She’s the same for me,’ Magda said of Camilla, telling the girl’s gran that if she ever thought she, Magda, could be useful, or it would help to have her involved in something, she had only to let her know. ‘I’ll be right down.’ She spoke also of the preceding stage in her life. ‘I was going out with all these gun-happy men. There’s something wrong, isn’t there, when they get stuck on guns. Still, they were good to me, and I needed them. I don’t need them now. I’ve moved on. Jack says he’d like to keep seeing me, and I know he’s envious whenever I come down here to see you people, so maybe there’s hope for him yet. We’ll see.’

It took a year, but Jack redeemed himself, in Magda’s eyes, by getting rid of the truck with the spotlight, and the guns. He dressed carefully, he shaved. Coarse language dropped away. He surprised her one day by saying he wanted to take her for a drive because he had a special place in mind, and he took her to the site of the crash. To propose that they should marry. ‘You mean this, don’t you Jack?’ was the best that Magda could say. His silence was appealing. ‘You’re not saying anything,’ she said. ‘I can’t do the same can I. I suppose I have to reply. We’ve got quite a lot between us now, haven’t we. I suppose we should stick together.’ She thought she’d answered clearly enough, but Jack said, ‘Is that a yes? Or a no? Tell me, Magda, don’t leave me dangling.’ It made her awkward, she’d always been clumsy with words. ‘It means yes, I’m saying yes, we were both stuck in a bad spot and we’re going to get out of it together. That’s the way I see it, Jack; is that how you see it too?’

They married, they had children, they thought each other wonderful, ordinary as they were. ‘Nothing special about this house,’ Magda used to say in later years, when visitors arrived, but she and Jack contradicted this estimate with their lives. Each had found the other and each thought it was the only saving grace of mankind that care, tenderness and love could flow into those who’d been without them.

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An Ex-Student

Jim got himself in charge of a rich man’s yacht in Darwin, and then he moved to Sydney, the same deal, an Italian with money and mistresses who liked to have a floating hotel for the innermost circle. ‘Nuthin gets done on the yacht,’ he told Jim. ‘You’re to make sure it stays that way. They can talk, they can plan their ideas as far as they like, but money never changes hands on board, drugs are only recreational, people come and go without questions being asked, this is where we all want to be all of the time, but we can’t. We’re busy getting it all together. This is where we come to relax. Got that word fixed in your mind? Re-lax! Everything else stays off the ship, Jim, and that’s for you to police.’

The Italian knew his man. ‘Never thought you’d be a policeman, didya!’

So Jim learned to be both everywhere and invisible. If something wouldn’t work, he got it going. If people swapped partners, that is, they went below with someone different, he knew nothing. He shifted glasses and bottles the moment they were left behind. He knew the people on the boats that went past, he read maps, he studied ropes and sails. He likened himself to someone managing an exclusive club. He watched, or thought about, Carlo, his boss, almost every waking moment. Carlo was restless, suspicious, and had to be kept happy. He wanted his glasses, cups, cutlery and plates to look as they did in advertising pictures. He had the obsession with emptiness, of void-ness, that goes with display. Jim wondered if he ever slept, and if he slept, what he dreamed about? People with brooms, people painting, or polishing? Even relaxation was, for Carlo, a performance of some sort. He was, Jim suspected, a peasant at heart, because something in him opened at a market. He liked to talk about huge black boars he’d seen, dripping blood, shot in the woods of Italy. Civilisation, Carlo told Jim, was built on top of savagery, each was defined by the other, and if you had one of them in your mind you had the other – somewhere. ‘The world’s an ugly place,’ Carlo liked to tell Jim, ‘but on this boat, everything’s as it should be.’ It might have been an impossible ideal, but Jim respected it. He learned to cook by studying chefs Carlo brought aboard. He sipped the wines carefully, studying them. He appraised people’s manners, he noticed what they kept out of their conversations as much as what they included. He noticed that those who read a lot - rare among Carlo’s friends – spoke in more complex sentences, and had longer memories. Some people lived inside their minds and others followed their bodies’ urges. A woman called Lola followed him below one day and opened her cabin door. ‘I think my mattress is a bit hard. Try it and tell me if you think the same.’ Heart sinking, Jim put his hand on the mattress; this would cost him his job if Carlo found out. Lola read his mind. ‘He’ll be ashore for a couple of hours. Now’s the time to try each other out.’ They did. Lola wanted to drink with him after they’d made love, but Jim told her, ‘That’s how people give themselves away. Believe me, I see it all the time. People change because they’ve done it. If you want to keep on doing it, you make sure you don’t change.’ Lola thought this fascinating. ‘Don’t change and it stays a secret? What a wonderful idea! There’s so many men I’d like to go back to, but once people know you’re a couple, it changes things, somehow. Hey!’ She was suddenly excited. ‘That’s something we’re going to have to work out!’

She gave him a key to an apartment near a television studio, she told him when he mustn’t by any means be seen at her window, and he felt a sickening fear that if he went to her apartment there’d be another man there, or she’d walk in with one and toss him out. But this didn’t happen. If she had other men – and he felt sure she did – she must have gone to their places, because he never saw any signs of males at her place. ‘Everyone says the same thing,’ she told him, ‘and that’s because I keep it that way. You know why they pay me as much as they do? I’m a creation of their smutty little fantasies, so I can’t let a few facts get in the way. The life I let people see is squeaky clean, and it’s going to stay that way. That’s why I insist on you coming when there’s no one around, and leaving when you do. What you’re getting’s good enough to make things like that worthwhile.’

Jim thought so too. He called her Lola but he thought of her as Woman. She was Everything. She was what he couldn’t understand. Men made a simple world, full of rivalry, women added everything else. Lola was Carlo’s lover. And Carlo was a jealous male, predictable in every way. ‘You’re safe in my place,’ Lola told Jim. ‘When Carlo wants me I go to him. He’s been here but it’s not grand enough for him. It’s just a little bedroom near my work, I tell him. It’s not for entertaining. If I want to be entertained, I come to you, and you give me grandeur. You give me class!’ She looked pleased with herself, as if this rubbish might take someone in. Perhaps Carlo’s mind fed on rubbish, Jim couldn’t be sure. Lola was certainly a keen one for pleasure. She said she didn’t want children with such definitive vigour that he couldn’t believe it was true. It occurred to Jim that hardly anything she said was true, as he’d understood the word. Her statements were made because they were needed. It was a strange way to think, he thought. He tried to take bearings off things she said. Somewhere, in the sea of floating signals, lamps and symbols, there was a soul flashing messages, and all you had to do was read her properly and you could be happy for life.

There came a time when the TV studio wanted her in Melbourne. She was to fly down and stay for a week. She wanted Jim to be with her; he felt his heart tighten. Surely this was a trap? Wouldn’t Carlo come down too, at some unexpected time, breaking in on the love nest? And wouldn’t he be aware that Jim wasn’t on the yacht, keeping everything loaded and ready for the next party? Lola pressed him, though, and persuaded him that he’d be safe because Carlo would be in Thailand, and that meant a series of seaside resorts with women laid on, and no time for him to be checking on his base ... Jim gave in, and flew south on the plane after Lola’s; they didn’t travel together. The studio had a car for Lola and she used it to meet him when things were quiet before the cameras. She took him to all the smartest, newest places to dine. She took him dancing, and he thought of her as Endless Youth. In her apartment he was adept at keeping out of her way until she needed him, and then he was whatever she wanted. ‘I’m a good chameleon,’ he told her when she commented, and they laughed. It was what she wanted; he wondered how much of herself she’d discovered yet, and how much was still to be faced, or found. If she was so interested in men and their dramas she was still creating her womanly self: children would come later, after this period of building, of development, was finished. Jim was curious about the woman she was going to be. Would he still be in her life when the day came?

Would he still be alive?

He asked this because he was scared. He noticed in a Melbourne paper a report about storms in Sydney, and wondered how the boat had fared. He took a flight to Sydney the next day, while Lola was filming, and inspected Carlo’s yacht. Other boats had drifted on their moorings but Carlo’s hadn’t shifted. Half an hour’s tidying and it was ready for guests. He flew back to Melbourne, but not before he rang his boss to tell him, ‘just in case he picked up reports about the wild weather’, that everything was well. Carlo had heard no reports but was pleased to know that his servant had been on the job. ‘That’s good to hear, Jim,’ Carlo had said. ‘I’m pleased to know someone sticks to his job!’ Jim flew back to Lola – sticking to his job, he told himself. She was in the apartment the studio had given her, wearing a dressing gown with nothing beneath. ‘The director and his camera men,’ she told Jim, ‘expect me to have no lines on my body. I tell them that’s okay, but I mustn’t be wearing things that give me lines until the moment they’re ready to shoot. When I’m in and out of things, I get creases in my skin. They ought to know, they’re taking pictures all the time! Are they blind?’

Jim thought they were. Over time he realised that she was a professional at presenting herself, and the camera men were slow to catch on. They were capturing her body but capturing themselves in doing so. In turning onlookers into fools they were turning themselves into onlookers at the same time. Jim realised how rare he was in being willing to wait. He didn’t woo, or court, the glamorous Lola, he waited for her to find the need she showed him. He might say to her, ‘You’re a wonder, darling,’ and she would be surprised; he added to her sense of herself every time he spoke, and this took her by surprise. Yet he didn’t try to prise her open to be used, he waited until she needed to open herself for somebody, and that somebody was him. ‘I always said I wasn’t going to get married,’ she told him, one afternoon in bed, between studio shootings, ‘and I’m not, but if I do ...’

He knew what was coming.

‘... it’s going to be you!’ When he didn’t say anything, she shouted, or nearly, ‘Tell me how you feel about that?’

He had to take a punt. He couldn’t afford to be wrong. ‘I think of you as Woman, darling. More than I think of you as Lola. Lola’s an individual, and of course you are, like everyone else. But you’re also a summation of being a woman, of being part of your generation. You’re a symbolic life in which every woman or man can find something of themselves.’ She was looking surprised; he went on. ‘You’re impersonal. I didn’t say inhuman. Far from it. People find themselves in you. You’re like a mirror, showing the best of what’s around you.’ Lola was amazed. ‘Jim!’ She needed to be standing up, moving around, acting, but they were in bed. ‘Nobody’s ever spoken to me like that.’ He knew she was his, entirely, but then so was he hers. Neither had an advantage, and this was new to both of them. They’d given more than they’d realised it was possible to give. It came to her mind first. ‘We’d better stay together, now, Jim. Now.’ He liked the idea but it made him even more afraid. ‘We’d be okay down here, perhaps, but up there ...’ He meant Sydney, where people would know, and Carlo ... Jim had heard stories of Carlo’s hysterical vengeance for wrongs and alleged wrongs, and didn’t fancy being wiped out. He said the word: ‘Carlo.’

Lola knew. ‘We couldn’t stay down here forever, I don’t get enough work. We both belong up there.’ It meant their lives were impossible. Jim didn’t think for one moment that his life belonged in range of Carlo; it might be cut short if that gentleman woke up to what was going on. He said, ‘We’ve got a few more days down here. We’d better grab‘em and be grateful.’ He knew he was failing her, but she was as tied to Carlo as he was. Suddenly she got out of the bed. ‘That bastard!’ She began to dress. ‘I’m going back to the studio. It’s time I talked to them.’ He wanted to ask what she was going to say, but didn’t; she had no more idea than he did. She’d slip in quietly and they’d notice that she was early, for once. When she left, and he was alone, it came clear. He had to get out now, and not go back to the yacht, either, because Carlo would notice something eventually. Where could he go? He couldn’t think of a single place.

Then he thought of one.

He got a taxi to the city and a train to Ballarat. Then he hitched along the highway – that was easy – until he was home. His mother kissed him, cooked him a meal ...

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Rhyll Takes A Step ...

In mid-afternoon Rhyll and others returned to town to buy up quantities of food for a barbecue and salads at the house that evening, for those who weren’t eating at the hotel. The discussion following the day’s final session didn’t end till six, at which time fires were lit in the garden and drinking started. Cars went off to the hotel, amid shouted reminders that the walk would start at ten thirty. Departing cars tooted and the stay-at-homes kept barbecuing and drinking. Rhyll could have told you, could have signalled, the very moment when the night became sexual. Someone ripped off the background music and put on a version by The Animals of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’. A brothel song, marvellously sung. It ended, it was played again, and a third time. The night had a new shape. Bodies and minds adjusted. Night thoughts were predatory. Bodies, already well-appraised, came closer. Brian began to circle Rhyll. Repugnant as he was to her, he was also a necessity. Men were to women, and women to men. Some of the older men picked young girls for their targets. The party began to pair off. Drinkers came back from the Sorrento hotel. At ten thirty the house emptied and the gathering spilled along the beach. People wanted to know how they’d know when they were there. Most felt sure someone would know. Haversacks held grog. It was a warm night, with enough moonlight to give confidence. The sea was quiet; some said the tide was turning. There was nothing to do but walk. There somehow formed an unspoken agreement that the party would stay together until they reached the place where the prime minister had disappeared. There was a lookout point, someone said, and a track to reach it, and once they got that far ... it was everyone for themselves.

They got there. People talked about the disappearance of Harold Holt – an event which seemed ever so unlikely on a night when the sea was quiet – while some drank, and others slipped off the path to the lookout to find spots for lovemaking in the sand. Rhyll stayed close to the water, and she was almost on her own when she heard a voice call her name. It was Brian, at the edge of the bush; something about the way he’d half-hidden himself in foliage telling her he was ready to slip out of the day’s restrictions. She went close enough to see him, but still a few paces from the shadowy bushes where he stood. ‘There’s a good little spot in here,’ he said, expecting her to agree.

She felt divided. She was connected to the mood of all the others strung along the beach that night, and she was held by a consciousness of having a path of her own that she must be true to. She hated Brian for calling her, yet she recognised that she was as tempted as anyone else on the beach. She wanted what they all wanted, the release of letting her body overwhelm her mind. She stepped into the shadows where Brian was, he took her hand and led her a few steps into the clearing he’d found. He’d spread a rug. He sat on it, he drew her down. ‘Is there anybody near us?’ she said. Brian thought not. ‘I was careful about the place I picked. Mind you, if people get excited we might hear a few squeals. But then, they might hear us!’ He made it so impersonal, she felt the blockages in her path starting to move. She could do what they were going to do as long as it was an action separate from themselves. They were apart. Night made them anonymous, and the sea was an understanding friend. They kissed, they caressed each other. Brian managed to hang onto his desire with a show of understanding for his partner. She moved hard against him but she wasn’t going to undress. How was he to deal with that? He stood up and pulled off his clothes, giving himself to her. She found this immensely attracting. She kissed him all over. Brian kissed her, respectfully, on the clothes. She decided, eventually, to take off her clothing too. One thing after another she took them off and gave them to Brian, who hung them on the tea tree surrounding their hideaway. ‘Yours too,’ she said, and they picked up Brian’s clothes and put them also in the tea tree. Their shoes they put side by side, four feet in a row. Then she drew him down to the rug, feeling she was in some way still at odds with herself, though doing what she desired to do. The caution took the form, not of a word but a sound. ‘Uh huh!’ she said. ‘Safety precautions. Where’s the thing?’

He’d been going to enter her without a condom. ‘Oh yes,’ he mumbled. ‘Shouldn’t have overlooked that.’ He got up and found the pocket of his trousers, dangling from a branch. ‘Make sure it’s on right,’ she said, unsure of whether he knew what he was doing. He fumbled in the darkness of their retreat, and of his loins, and she felt to reassure herself; his penis, hard and direct, had a rubbery skin. ‘Not straight away,’ she said. ‘Slowly. Gently. Only move when it feels right.’ Every movement felt right for Brian. Suddenly he was in her. He put his hands under her and thrust himself hard and often into her yielding body. First timers are too quick. He climaxed before she’d had any time to draw near a climax of her own. He lay on her, breathing hard, wondering what he was meant to do now, until she eased him off. ‘Bury that,’ she said, as the condom slipped off him. ‘We don’t want that lying around for evidence.’

He was struck by the word. Evidence? Why had she said that? ‘Next time will be better,’ he said, as if programmed to make encouraging remarks, as if by believing in a future for what they’d done he could divert attention from the very limited nature of what had happened. ‘There has to be a first time,’ she said calmly, and he felt sure he was hearing her mother’s voice speaking through her; was that what happened when young people did it? Perhaps it was? He said to her, and he really wanted to know, ‘Do you feel changed?’

The question surprised her, and she took it inside herself. ‘I don’t think I know yet.’ She thought some more. ‘I’m sorry, that’s the best answer you’re going to get.’ He said to Rhyll, with his self-confidence draining away, ‘Everybody talks as if everything’s changed the moment they do it, but it feels different, to me. I’ve got a feeling the changes don’t happen in a spectacular way, they creep in slowly. In a year’s time, we’ll both be very different, but we probably won’t even notice when the changes started to happen. Or that’s how I feel. How do you feel, Rhyll?’

She said, ‘Cold. Let’s get dressed.’ So they stood, picked their clothing off the tea-tree and put it on again, then, at his insistence, they lay together, side by side on the rug, under which he pushed some sand to give them head-rests, for talking. ‘I’m grateful,’ he said. ‘I wanted so much to make love with you, and you let me. I’d better warn you, Rhyll, I’m going to want to do it again and again, now that we’ve done it. Do you think that’s how you’re going to feel too?’ She didn’t, but wasn’t going to say so. She said, ‘It raises a problem. I’ve always felt proud of standing alone, but of course I can only do that inside a family. If I was to go on making love with you, we’d have to form a family, and I don’t feel like that. Not yet, certainly ...’ It was too soon to be talking, but Brian wanted to talk. ‘Young men are supposed to be irresponsible, but I actually feel very responsible for you ...’

She said it again. ‘Uh huh! We did it because we wanted to. We both needed to find out. Now we know. No bargaining. No trying to make it fit in with everything else. It’s happened. We know it’s big. Leave it alone. Just leave it alone!’ Her strength was showing sternly. ‘Okay okay,’ he said. ‘I’ll hold my peace. You really jumped on me for that. Can we lie here a little longer, or do you want to go back and find the others?’

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... And So Does Tim ...

Having little idea of how to manage this moment, they were relieved when there was a knock at the door, and Loretta could go to answer it. Father Joe. He’d heard their boy was off to the city today, he hadn’t been sure, until he saw the car in the drive, whether or not they’d be at home, he thought they may have driven Timmy – Tim – to Ballarat, he knew their custom of taking him there ...

They welcomed the Father, they made a fresh pot of tea, they laughed at his feeblest jokes. They were intensely grateful to be other than on their own. Dick saw all over again how important was his wife’s understanding of the congregation to its priest. Joe was a most undoctrinaire man, full of tenderness, but had little idea of management, and who counted in creating, or stifling, the various ripples that ran through any group of people. His reliance on Loretta for wisdom of these sorts was visible. His gratitude was clear. He praised Tim for choosing a medical career: ‘He’ll be doin’ a lot of good in this world before too long.’ Dick described the sadness he and Loretta were going through now that their home was empty, at last, of children. ‘We’ve got to start out, all over again, and it isn’t as easy as it was when we were young.’ Father Joe nodded. ‘What you’ve got to understand,’ he said, ‘is that there are no beginnings and endings in the eyes of God. Life’s one continuous stream. On earth, we grieve because somebody precious has died, but God doesn’t see it that way. They’re as present in God’s heart as ever they were. It’s the same with little ones growing up. To the parents, nothing’s ever going to be the same again, but to God, nothing’s changed at all. I know this isn’t very comforting to you on the day you’ve seen him off on the train, but I think you’ll find there’ll be a change in the way you feel about it before too long.’ Putting a professional complexion on it, he added, ‘The first letter you get, or maybe a phone call tonight, to say he’s arrived, and settled in, and you’ll cheer up because you’ll know you haven’t lost him. He’s simply gone on to the next stage of his life.’

It had always amused Dick that Father Joe’s advice was so tendentious, that is, he uttered the words he would like to have put to him if he’d been in the position of recipient. There was a social ritual in his advice, as if people had only to feel that they were doing what everybody else did and they would be all right because the world, however troubled, was never troubled for long before it thought of something to give it a lift – an election, a football result, some trivial little prize or reward that brought relief if you were shallow enough to believe in it – and Father Joe was just that! The priest worked, with extraordinary success, on the cliché that if those being comforted perceived that the comforters were in greater need of comfort than those receiving it, then they could put their own needs aside in favour of the one who was concentrating his efforts on them. It was a roundabout which made nonsense of comforters and comforted: it allowed people to laugh at themselves, and that was when, in Joe’s idea of the vexatious world, it was easiest to be comfortable. Then he surprised them. ‘Tell me something Timmy did today that you’ll remember him by. There must have been some little something, something he said or did you’ll never forget because you’ll never want to forget. What was that thing he did, tell me, I’m curious and it’s something you ought to share with each other.’

Dick, whose position normally made him the one who managed people through difficulties, was surprised at the Father’s adroitness, but Loretta, he noticed, was as ready to deal with this suggestion as she was affected by it. ‘For me,’ Dick said, ‘it was a moment when we were getting things from the house – the doorway, there – to the car. Tim stood in the doorway, nearly filling it because he’s a big lad now, and it seemed to me that he had his home behind him and the world in front of him, and I thought then and I think now that that’s how I’ll remember him.’

Joe smiled, pleased, then moved his eyes to Loretta, who was expecting the signal. The priest, and Dick, heard Loretta say, ‘I carried one of his bags, a very little one because I knew he didn’t want me to pick up anything heavy, and I put it at the back of the car, with all the rest, because he had the boot open and I knew, knowing my son after all these years, that he would be intending to put them in in a certain order. He’d know, all too clearly, how they’d be intended to fit, so if you messed up his arrangement he’d be displeased. I had no wish to displease my son on the day he went away, so I did things exactly as I knew would fit into his plans. He’s a very fussy boy. He knows, always, how he wants things to happen, so if you want him to be happy you never interfere with what he thinks is the natural order of things. It’s like Dick was saying. If you want to arrange things so they’re in that natural order that means so much to Tim, you have to let him match everything he’s doing to the order he creates around himself. I’ve learned, a thousand times over, that Tim loves things to be put in order for him, which means, every time, if you come to think of it, that you must let him make the final order for himself. That’s the boy I brought into the world. My third of three, all unique.’

Dick had long known that his wife thought that about Tim, as she’d felt with the earlier two. Staring across the room, she was thinking of ways to add what he was going to do with what he’d done, and that meant that her judgement was even shrewder than the priest’s, because his was constrained by the myriad, institutionalised voices of the church, prescribing, advising and all the rest of it, whereas Loretta, Tim’s mother, could be utterly true to herself in searching out a pathway because she knew – as most mothers knew – that god’s way was a woman’s way; that men’s ways, the dramatic ways, rarely applied, and most of the time people’s minds, their thinking, were in that state of becoming which Tim was in at that moment. He’d have to achieve his way out but the man that achieved – graduated; of that, Loretta felt she could be sure – would face the endless processes of adjustment to make the achievements of yesterday the beneficial aspects of tomorrow, or even today. Demands crept up on one that little bit more quickly than readiness, but then, once you understood that, you didn’t need to do much ducking and weaving. In that sense, she was happy to accept the picture her husband had drawn, of Tim at the door, about to take his next step, as both temporary and final, because, after all, and if you thought about it, we were, all of us, forever, swinging between demand and readiness. If we made ourselves ready for demand, we were in a state of readiness; if we were faced, when unready, with a new demand, we were already on the way to being fixed, put right, and set for the action we needed. Becoming was the natural state of humans, we were always, both individually and as a society, on the edge of becoming, and all our mental awareness was needed to put us in position so that we could move, when needed, as needed. Readiness, Loretta believed, rested on poise, and poise on understanding. Understanding rested on poise, and poise on readiness to move ourselves into a suitable position, a suitable condition, for whatever needed to be done next. Dick, doing his best to follow his wife’s thoughts at this sad but inevitable, unavoidable moment that held them for the moment – and Father Joe would say something else in a minute that they would regard as funny, so he’d relieve them of their pain and confusion before he left them to take comfort somewhere else among the people of his parish – a comfort needed most of all by himself, and received by him in handing out wherever it needed to be doled – Dick observed that almost nothing in her way of handling the situation was religious per se. It was because she was poised that she could so easily make space for her religion, give welcome to it. Readiness was all, truly. He hoped that her thinking on these things had affected the son they’d given the world that afternoon, and decided that if it hadn’t then there was nothing that could be done now, and if it had – and he believed it had – then their son was in good shape to deal with the world. ‘Off you go, son,’ Dick said to his boy, already far distant, and knew that the crisis that had built in him momentarily was on the way to being over.

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The writing of this book:

Elsewhere on this site I’ve discussed the writing of my first published book, Hail & farewell! An Evocation of Gippsland (1971), referring to a conflict I felt as I approached the writing of the book’s second and longer part: was I going to talk as objectively as I could about Gippsland itself, or was my subject some combination of the area and the considerable development I had undergone in my twelve years of living there?

After an appraisal of my own abilities (meaning inexperience, I think) I made what I’m sure was the right decision – to talk about the place, and not myself. In recent years I have revisited that period and used experiences excluded from my first book in later work, particularly some of the mini-mags available on this site. Running The Race takes this process further, since much of it is in set in Gippsland and incorporates some real (and quite a few imagined) experiences from that period of my life. There is a character, Carl Nelson, who roughly approximates my younger self, and there are numerous reflections on small town life which develop feelings strong in me in those years.

Yet this is not the whole of it. I’ve subtitled the book ‘a novel of sorts’, and if I ask myself what I mean by those words, I think I would have to say that Running The Race is a novel about the capacities and limits of what it means to write a novel: it’s a book about the writing of a certain type of book.

If you are in any way like me, dear reader, you are probably making up your mind to proceed with great caution.

I join you. To be honest, I hardly know what to make of Running The Race. A novel of sorts? Yes, but what does that tell us? Let us investigate and see what we can find.

In one sense this novel (written 2009 – 2010) was conceived late in my Gippsland years: circa 1965, I developed the idea of a story about the students of a school setting off on a run, with the promise of something at the canteen when they got back. But nobody knew the nature of the run they were starting; it was no more nor less than their whole lives they were beginning, and neither teachers nor mothers would be there by the time they – or a few of them – got back. Life would have run its course, swallowing them up in doing so.

This meant, if you think about it for a moment, that the run was a metaphor for a life lived, and at once we are/I was in the territory of Wainwrights’ Mountain, my most ambitious book by far. Wainwrights’ Mountain is built on a metaphor. In a sense, it is nothing but one vastly elaborated metaphor. There is a place, the top of the mountain, where Giles Wainwright glories in being able to see the whole world. The mountain represents the idea of a unified vision of life. Was Running The Race to be some sort of variation on the same, or similar, theme?

Yes, no, maybe: where do I stand on this?

I started out thinking it would be, but right at the beginning I could see that by describing the actual start of an actual run I was contradicting, perhaps undermining, my metaphorical intentions. I knew, at the end of the very first section, that there would be later sections in which the existence, the happening, of the run would be questioned. I was in the position of both affirming something and querying it. This is by no means an impossible position for a writer but it left the metaphorical status of my story in doubt.

This problem was compounded by the fact that it quickly became clear that this ‘novel of a sort’ wasn’t going to have a central set of characters to focus on. A hundred or so young people set off on the run, any number of townsfolk are curious about them, later people will be affected also, if only by hearing about what was supposed to have happened, and the run itself is an indicator of a way to think about life rather than an episode to be examined for itself. The subject matter, then, is life itself, a way of looking at it has been indicated, and after that ...

Who knows?

There was nothing to do but keep going and see how the book itself solved the problem of its existence.

So what did the book do?

It chose to follow the lives of quite a few people, most of them connected with the run in some way. People take up a variety of positions in relation to the run. Carl Nelson isn’t very interested in it, yet he is mentioned by Joanna McGregor, his lover for a time, to two boys she happens to pick up in her car when they flag her down for a ride back to a place near the school where they can hide till the other runners get back. Joanna’s view of the run isn’t revealed, but I think we can take it that she would see it as foolish activity without any purpose. (Joanna sees most things in this way.)

I say the book ‘chose to follow the lives of quite a few people’, which gets us somewhere near the reason why I’ve called the book ‘a novel of sorts’; most novels select an inner core of people to be the focus of such comment as the book may make. Most books (plays, poems, operas, other forms of art) show life in a particular way, be it tragedy, comedy, comedy of manners, or what you will. This is done because to choose a particular form of focus gives the work’s creator the opportunity to show the people who are his/her chosen subject with the extra intensity of the form, whatever it may be. With this novel, it is the variety of life’s paths that is my subject. The young people who go on the run, and those who are teaching them at the time, are shown as being similar – they are, that is, encorralled by the nature of the run – while their later, their ultimate pathways and purposes are going to turn out very differently, one from another. Some of them – Wendy and Erica come to mind – are squeezed together at the time of their early experience, but go on, with their schooldays behind them, to lead quite dissimilar lives. The same holds true for Neil and Sam. Neil is an interesting case. He is a farmer, one of four children. He marries and he becomes the father of four children. He is a most successful farmer and his properties will go on to his children – then he is stricken by his passion for a much younger woman.

By way of contrast, Sam is an estate agent who is a somewhat calculating womaniser; and yet he finds a love that can be shared and revelled in. The story of the love he finds with Muriel is quite the opposite of what he expects from an involvement with a policewoman. The fact that it is her job to enforce the law is much less important than the fact that she is capable of a broad and beautiful love for a man she trusts. She makes Sam rise to meet her demands though he never expected any such thing to happen!

So the novel is about life’s varied forms and pathways rather than an intensive examination of one specific form of behaviour, or outcome, in the great abstraction we call life. This doesn’t prevent Running The Race being a novel but I’ve called it a novel ‘of sorts’ because it takes its form, its behaviour, as a novel in a fashion remarkably like the treatment I gave to the people described in my first published book, Hail & Farewell: an Evocation of Gippsland (1971), though that was a non-fiction work. This way of looking at life crops up elsewhere in my writing. I notice, for instance, that the story (mini-mag) The Saints in Glory, also available on this website, does much the same thing with a group of characters who are linked and apparently alike at the beginning but have widely differing lives ahead of them, as the story goes on to show.

One last point, about revising the book once it was finished. I did my usual quick revision, looking for lazy words to snip from my sentences, and noticed that I was being harder than usual on my first version. I was less interested in the musicality of my prose and more harshly concerned with cutting anything I saw as waste. Then I discovered, when I’d finished that process, that I still wasn’t happy. I had a feeling that I may well have lost my readers somewhere along the way, as I changed focus from one character to another. What to do? I decided to put in section headings. I read through the book again, looking for breaks in the attention demanded by the text. I put in nineteen headings, and then I went through the book again, inserting sub-headings that might also be useful as guidance. At the same time I maintained the many lesser breaks between sections that were already there. It seemed to me that these section names I’d inserted might guide readers rather than leave them to find a pathway through the book without help. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily made the book any clearer to read but I think what I did does allow the reader to feel the presence of a guiding intellect: this, I hope, gives some sense of reassurance should readers become mystified at any stage.

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