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OUR BOOKS > MINI–MAGS > ONE SMALL STEP

The Saints in Glory
Memoir
Written by Chester Eagle
Cover design by Vane Lindesay
Cover art by Rodney Manning, 2009
DTP work by Karen Wilson
Circa 6050 words
Electronic publication 2011
Print edition of 200 copies, 2011
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To read some extracts from this memoir click here:

Sandhills
Stockman
TV at Sea Lake


To read about the writing of this memoir click here.

Sandhills

After gibbers, we came to sandhills. They were firm and the car climbed them well enough. We stopped to drink tea from a thermos, and to give our boy a walk. This was on top of a sandhill. I noticed – it’s hard to describe a change in perception – that there were everlastings in flower beside our car. I lifted my head, and there were more. I looked along the sandhill and could see daisies, in flower, to the horizon. All the other sandhills, parallel to ours, had daisies too. To the west, daisies reached the distant sky. The east was the same. There were millions upon millions, glowing in the mildest light, screened by a mesh of middle-high cloud. They stopped me. How had we got to the heart of this without noticing? Yet we had, too preoccupied with other thoughts to keep our eyes on the world we were entering. It was a miracle, surrounding us, these long dunes of sand, this sky of almost white, these endless flowers, a botanical system larger than the mind could cope with. The gibbers had been awful, the sandhills were marvellous, what would we encounter next?

The track lowered into a long-dried waterway. The soil was soft and the wheels ran easily in the opposite direction to the vanished flow. When had there last been water? Years, surely. We drove at speed, and easily. I did calculations. We were close to Innamincka. I thought I could see some cattle yards, ahead. I could, but ...

... to reach them we had to go through gibbers, again. More gibbers. Stones, hard as hell, scraping on the metal below us. Was Innamincka surrounded by gibbers? Apparently. For some reason I remembered photos I’d seen of the hotel and its spectacular bottle stack. That would be a sight to see. There might be some photos there ...

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Stockman

In the morning we bought a few things at the station store, and got directions about the track. The station men looked at our car. ‘Yeah, you’ll be all right. You’ll get through okay.’ I thought of the Leigh Creek policeman and was determined to succeed.

The track was harsh but we seemed to have left gibbers behind. We camped the following night beside a dry creek bed, lined by casuarinas of a species I didn’t know. The soil was reddish. I thought of the Murrays’ bath: nature didn’t make things as hideous as that, not having any concern with matters of taste. Its colours were soft, and mild, even when things were hardest. The morning found us shrouded in mist. We drove slowly, watching the track, then I heard my wife, beside me, gasp. I looked. In the mist on her side, there was a little fire, and, standing a couple of paces away, a black man wearing a coat, hat, trousers and boots. Erect, proudly within himself, he had a dignity even greater than the horse nuzzling his shoulder. We waved, he waved, and we were lost to him, in what I will call his mist, as he was lost to us.

And yet he lingers in my mind, an event of our journey. I add him to Innamincka Man, with that jug of water for my wife, as a statement that was to change my ideas of the country’s inland. I had gone there thinking it would be eventful, only to find it was relentless, unforgiving of any error, breaking you down if you showed vulnerability. It demanded that you be, not so much relentless as adaptable, endlessly aware, and open to such flashes of poetry as it showed you, possibly when you were least expecting. That black man, in his mist, by his fire! It would be conventional to say I’d love to see him again, but I can’t; his appearance, on that foggy morning, was the moment of enlightenment I had, quite unconsciously, been seeking. I’d had the flash, the bright light through the veil. The country had shown itself to us on terms we could understand. From that moment, we were going home.

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TV at Sea Lake

We entered Victoria, our home state, a place we felt we understood, even when entering, as we did, via the region known and sometimes feared as The Mallee. We visited friends near Mildura, then set off again until, feeling exhausted, I called a halt in a tiny place called Sea Lake. No camping that night. We went to a motel, asked for a room, and were given a key. We unpacked, trying to settle, and started to talk about all we’d seen that day. Inevitably, the trails of our thoughts led backwards to Ballarat, where we’d begun a couple of weeks before. We’d be there tomorrow, telling the Murrays all we’d seen and done. Then there was a knock at the door. It was the motel-man, with a blanket, or something that he pretended we might need. I suspected he thought, from the gap in our ages, that we weren’t married, and wanted another look at us. I was used, by now, to sitting people out. He left, but not before doing the favour of telling us that if we turned on the TV in a couple of minutes, they’d be replaying the moon landing. The what? Then I remembered the news from when we set off, a little over a fortnight before. Americans were going to land on the moon. My wife and I stared at the screen. This was an event, history happening before our eyes. The camera watched the first astronaut plant his foot where no human had done before, then he played his camera on the second man getting out of the capsule. Next day’s newspaper told us that the first man had said, ‘One small step for a man, one giant step for mankind.’ I remember feeling humbled because their feat of exploration rather outshone what my wife and I and little son had been doing. Plenty of people had been where we’d been, while nobody had been to the moon. What would life be like for the moon-men, once they got back? Their lives would be changed forever. We would soon be tiny fish again in the ocean of Melbourne..

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The writing of this memoir:

Both these mini-mags (Castle Hill and One Small Step) take reader and writer back over forty years. One Small Step links a trip that I made with my wife and family, all those years ago, with another journey being made at the same time; the somewhat more historic arrival of mankind on the moon. Linking the two may seem to be an improbable claim, but the effect I wanted is more modest. I think that the Eagle family’s trip to Innamincka can be seen as being in accord with the spirit of its times. Not everyone was closing in on Innamincka when we were!

The two journeys were alike in taking humans to inhospitable places. The wonders of space travel can’t disguise from us that the moon is awfully bleak. Of the two, I’d rather have Innamincka, largely because of the occasional kindness mentioned in the memoir, and much appreciated at the time. The jug of rainwater (for washing my wife’s hair) and the aboriginal stockman appearing out of the fog remain with me still, reminding me, along with the daisies in the sandhills, that the trip, trying as it was, had its uplifting moments.

A word now about the purple bath to be found early and late in the piece. It’s as eloquent, I think, as the moon in this memoir. I find myself wanting to say ‘It stands for ...’, but in my prose at least things have to stand for themselves. The bath is there representing everything fatuous in the civilisation pared down by the outback. Whatever else they may have had at Innamincka, they wouldn’t have had a purple bath. The one we washed in was made of cheap metal and made no claims on beauty. It was functional only, and it worked. Having a purple bath was an indulgence of the people who had owned the Ballarat house before my friends, the Murrays, and it was ghastly. There are worse things than being in a harsh environment. In fact, those who lived there probably knew the cleansing effects of harshness: needing to plan, and order, far ahead in order to ensure long term viability of the station. Doing without has its benefits too.

I find it’s good to examine these snippets of the past; they often contain moments that have value, even today. I mention an attractive young woman whose mother was the postmaster (mistress?) at Tibooburra. Whatever became of her? For that matter, what becomes of anybody? Everybody? For me, she stood out at Tibooburra, but it may be that her resistance, and her attractiveness, didn’t last long. Or the reverse may have been the case. A writer’s curiosity is endless and will only occasionally be satisfied.

Castle Hill is a case in point. I got there a few times, my curiosity was satisfied, I would have said, until the later realisation, expressed in the memoir, that I’d been, in some sense, living on the flat-topped peak for all those years between the first achievement and the later realisation that I’d never left. That pulled me up and made me have a look at myself. One of the benefits of growing old, for those of us who get there, is that we can see more deeply into things we thought we’d understood. We give ourselves explanations as a way of shutting our minds to what we’re really doing, but later recall, as in this series of memoirs, makes us see that things have been going on beneath the surface which we’d not previously admitted. This is humbling, and therefore good.

Humbling and therefore good. I’ve already moved on to another pair of mini-mags, about my exploration, my discovery, of Europe many years ago, and I find that one of the major discoveries I made, not long after I thought I’d put Castle Hill behind me in the past, was that, proud as I was of my family, my life and my country, my pride was of a different sort from the sharper, more ruthless pride that ran like a strip of colour through Europe’s history. Another discovery was that I like writing mini-mags in contrasting pairs – two of them about Europe, the discovery and the turning away – and two of them about journeys long ago, each of them affecting the way I think today.

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