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A Northern Rivers Romance

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

– E. D.

It was an email from Alice, the editor at my publisher’s office just up the hall from my own shabby desk that led me back to Byron Bay. Alice wrote: ‘Well, you tried to get out of the festival circuit but they want you anyway.’ Attached was an invitation signed by the director of the Byron Bay Writers Festival. Her letter read: ‘It gives me great pleasure to invite you to participate in our 2016 program. For the last two years we have had some extra funding to run a ‘5 writers’ regional tour in the lead up to the main festival. We put 5 writers in a van and send them to 5 regional towns in the Northern Rivers in 5 days.’ Reading that first cordial offering – innocent as it sounds reproduced here – I saw the makings of a trap. It is difficult for me to explain the process that led to this suspicion, so I will stick to the associations and abstractions that occurred as I imagined what attending this affair might entail.

Admittedly, from a distance, to anyone unfamiliar with the insider baseball of the writing world, the opportunity to be flown, feted and paid to partake in a festival on the north-east coast of New South Wales might sound like a gift horse, so to speak – but there was doubt in my heart. For one thing, the timing was dubious: the email in question had arrived in the aftermath of an editorial I’d written on the devilish nature of the writing culture, with particular contempt for the hubbub of festivals and their sinister rituals. Power-players in the so-called scene had come to my little office in Bankstown to assure me that black-listings had been put in place to keep precisely these kind of offers and invites permanently off the table. Were these power-players mistaken? They’d seemed so self-assured. To make matters more suspect, there was the fact that I had no new book to shill, my own slim square volume having long ago exhausted whatever modest readership it had managed to propagate. There was something in Alice’s tone, too, that struck me as a clear and present warning – a subtle, but unmistakably imploring note of concern. Perhaps it was just her way of implying that I should not screw things up further than I already had with the industry; to make some friends for a change and stay off whatever high horse I might be tempted to ride. But one can never be too careful when reading between the lines. The sort of thoughts I’m describing here are paranoid fantasies. If I could have seen that at the time, sitting at my desk deliberating on the offer as the little delusions began to sprout, it might not have made much difference.

To weed out what was at stake in the Director’s invitation, I began to imagine the landscape of Byron Bay, so as to rehearse in advance the pitfalls awaiting. For a setting: the vague image of a beach somewhere: a bright sun and a long curving beach populated by tourists in shorts and thongs, the air stinking of seaweed and sunscreen, a hot burning sensation spread across my cheeks and sand between my toes. High to the right, I saw a limestone lighthouse on a hill, and seagulls rising to a background of clouds. This seemed a suitable conception of a beachside paradiso, one likely to fit some part of the bay’s picture. A memory intervened in this idyll: I remembered what it should not be possible to forget: for a while, at least, I was a married man, and had honeymooned deep in the forests of the riverlands of northern New South Wales, stopping and staying in Byron on the way there. Memories of our drive along the eastern coast of the country, as they reoccurred to me, and as I replay them again now, seem so estranged as to be the makings of a dream. The actors in these scenes look unfamiliar – they move in a watery motion that does not conform to the wooden clumsiness of recent years, their details are half hidden in the gaps and shade. Is it nostalgia that makes them look so nimble, and light – or some other error of translation?

It was in this dreamy unreality of the past that my wife and I stayed in a treetop cabin resort off a dirt track which wound between the trees of Mullumbimby, with the sounds of strange birds rousing us in the morning and a fine gold light glowing in the room above the bed. An alternate version of myself pulls back the blinds on the way to the bathroom, half-dressed, and sits on the cold slate toilet across from tall glass walls open to the dense forest outside the cabin. This stranger appears, in my recollections, to be watching the high-topped trees flicker in a green and gold sweat while rare feathers sweep between their branches, knocking seedpods through the long leaves. It is impossible to intuit what this thin young man is thinking. His hair looks great, or at least there is more of it. When night comes, armed with flimsy eco-friendly torches, and by careful footsteps on mossy rock, the couple creep to a shallow riverbed splattered with the iridescent oozing of a glow-worm colony clinging to the earth above the water. The wife, her long hair invisible in the dark, smiles to discover that her thin husband believes the worms to be living creatures. ‘Just a conspiracy of impressions,’ she says to the stranger, in a voice swallowed up by the damp echoing  forest.

The moon comes out loud above them and the wife strips down to climb out onto a fallen tree bridging the riverbanks. He cautions her not to go out so far above the water, but she laughs and her skin in the pale light looks a mirage in the night-woods. It is perhaps because of the illusions of body and landscape that he does not react when the log first shakes and twists under her weight. The image of her out on the dead tree, naked as a forest nymph, with her strong hands holding her high above the flowing waters as she slides along the grainy length between the banks forces me, at this moment, watching and recalling the pair as they play their game by the river, to wonder if there is any truth at all to this series of recollections. Who was this thin man and his Lady of Shallot?

The body forgets itself in a rather final way: most nights, the world is very quiet, and the bed feels to my ever-thickening body like an examination table for the gods. Books pile up on the bedside, but there is nothing much to be found in those: more strangers in the sunken carriage. The doubt of memory runs so deep that I am compelled into the dark side of this room I am writing in to look through the drawer by the bed and find, sandwiched by a court summons and speeding fine, a little black case containing a wedding band. I am required to run my finger inside the rim, to feel the inscription which reads ‘Ma armastan sind’. It means ‘I love you’ in a rare antipodean language. The words, etched in white gold, help to hold the disparate dimensions together. But the ring must go back to its tiny leather snare, and I have stepped away from the bed. Certainty climbs into a bed of fog and fades under its covers. Who is it, after all, at this table in a room in a house on a hill – who is it taking this strange tone of voice, who goes about believing the inscriptions inside a ring, or the impressions of images all lined up in a row like a stitching of feathers in the Mycenaean crown on the dry skull of an old chieftain alone in his honeycomb tomb. For what it is worth: I recall that my new wife screamed when she fell into the river, and her knees were bleeding when we limped back to the room to pull the leeches from her wet body, with mud and blood on the bedsheets that night of our honeymoon.

I Googled the five writers listed in the email in order to discern what it might look like to be trapped in the cramped confines of a rental with them for five days, and in doing so discovered a dispiritingly pleasant array of faces. Gabbie, Miles, Jesse, Zach, Kate: looking at their cherubic smiles and happy eyes, it occurred to me as I sat at my dishevelled desk in Bankstown that I could not have concocted a less compatible collection of fellow artists if asked to hand pick them from an industry line-up.

The first potential van-mate I investigated was Gabbie Stroud: self-described as a ‘lapsed teacher’, Gabbie was easy to track down, a plethora of articles having only recently been written in praise of her essay ‘Teaching Australia: fight or flight’, which detailed the traumatic effects of an education system in crisis. The media consensus painted Gabbie as a courageous hero, speaking out with skin in the game, but I had my suspicions. Despite media support for her efforts, or perhaps because of it, I didn’t trust some feature of her beaming smile, and the erratic curl of her hair in images online made me nod my head as though a dark flaw had been uncovered.

Miles Merril, the second writer I studied, seemed even less commendable. A Chicago-born ‘tour de force’ performance poet, Merril’s claim to eternity – the thing for which he will no doubt be included in all the history books of Australian literature in the twenty-first century (supposing any are written) – was having single-handedly transplanted the proud American tradition of poetry slamming to our southern shores. For that alone I figured he had a great deal to answer for, since poetry slamming, I considered, smug in my office in the western suburbs, is a literary strain of cultural disease without redemption: a derivative, unlettered, poetaster’s impression of art.

The novelist Zacharey Jane, another young adult author with picture books about a willowy slumber-jack called ‘Tobias Blow’, was to be our tour-guide on the road. To her name was also a novel, The Lifeboat, no doubt an artistic response to the ‘children overboard’ horrors of the Howard era. Accompanying these accomplishments was a distinguished career in the film industry – Zacharey had apparently not only met George Lucas, but designed light sabres for the much-maligned Star Wars prequels. If these things were not evidence enough of villainy, then there was the issue of her looks: rather too blonde and potently cheek-boned for me as I sat there glowering into the laptop screen.

Jesse Blackadder meanwhile, who specialised in ‘landscapes, adventurous women and very cold places’, was another writer of children’s books about mythical brumbies and Antarctic dogs. Her latest adult novel was set in the open sea with an eye on whaling in the 1930s.  Jesse, like all the other writers assigned to the van, had the smiling face and bright eyes of people who have lived lives punctuated by joy, love, sadness and enthusiasm in ordinary measure, a look I considered, sitting then at my desk, to be other than the ideal form of the writer’s visage ought to take. Somewhere in my decades-long study of the literary arts, I had come to believe, in my secret heart of hearts, that the author ought to be, in person, a vision of wrack and ruin – with a face as flat and deflated as an old leather-bound book kept in a cellar, the nerves in cheeks and forehead atrophied by long states of abstraction, the muscles of human expression never having been needed on what Jacques Derrida calls the long march into the world of dead, ‘returning with bloodshot eyes and bleeding ears’.

At my desk in Bankstown, as I considered these faces, I saw a copy of Gerald Murnane’s A History of Books, his perfect writer’s face on the cover: a doleful lack of liveliness to his countenance, grim and fully deflated. Googling Gabbie, Miles, Jesse and Zach had revealed these potential road-tripper colleagues to be far from the morose Murnane ideal – but Kate Forsyth, the final van-mate, turned out to be its very antithesis. Not merely an unabashed writer of historical fictions with fairy-tale roots, the sort of writer who no doubt meets her characters in dreams and considers these collisions part of the profound mystery of fiction’s magic, but a woman with luxurious raven hair framing an almost elfin face with loud dark eyes and a smile as might suit the characters in one of her enchanted stories. She was a writer, to my mind, unthinkably opposed to the deranged figure of the artist who must grapple with the entanglements of words between worlds, and the supreme enigmas of literature.

Upon the landscapes that had already been summoned up by the email – the white gold beach with surfers’ and sunbathers’, the frothing blue immensity, the fervid roads between the towns and rivers and bays, on which my wife and I had so long ago honeymooned – I projected a van full of the faces I’d found on the web, and amongst them placed an avatar of myself: seatbelt tight around the shoulders, the smiling faces of the other writers in their open intercourse, trying, occasionally, to bring me into their conversations with sympathetic looks and doubtful glances of pity when I seemed unable to return to them a signifier of relationship. The luggage crowded into the back of the van would be rocking and vibrating, the road rolling backwards in a nauseating spillage between the masses of gum trees glowing to a sunset filament. We unload at community halls in empty coastal towns, where gatherings of elderly readers sit plangent in plastic chairs, patient with our ramblings and thronged around book-signing tables after the applause, buying books and insinuating their own talents to us. I project those expectant faces and guide them into familiar foreign rooms, seat them, make them smile and stare. They are almost real, an imaginary audience with slumped shoulders in rows before an aching stage. I think, unfairly, of Patrick White’s curmudgeonly face, and his line in Voss, ‘All human relations are a lunge, the direction of which seems inevitable’, and as I breathe out a highway of these thoughts, it feels as though the road and its memories have already been paved.

What I cannot see, what it is impossible for me to know, sitting at my desk in the office at Bankstown, dreaming of strangers and the distance between towns in the Northern Rivers, is the look of recognition that will cross Gabbie Stroud’s face some months from now on the rattling shuttle bus taking us both out to the plane to fly north. She is sitting on a seat at the back of the bus, and I am standing by way of a pole with one foot on my carry-on. Do I mouth hello or merely nod and smile? We lose each other in the crowd alighting the plane, but I see Kate Forsyth up ahead, her raven hair and full red lips like any prince’s debutante in her lordly novels. Watching her toss the luggage overhead, I will hear Murnane’s syllogism about two distinct types of writer – those fanciful kinds who make imaginary scripts for the reader’s delight, and those who deal with the universal mind for the sake of an autotelic truth – reverberating in my mind like a mantra, but when the six of us meet at the airport in Coffs Harbour, corralled around our wheeled suitcases, shaking hands and asking how the flight felt for each other, the mantra will begin to lose its frequency. At a café close by, Kate will reveal a small chest of trinkets – crow claws, meteorite rings, jewels from distant places made from the tiny bones of extinct animals. A cappuccino warms my nervous hands and Jesse Blackadder talks to us about her latest novel while the sound of cups clink by the counter and three men in hi-vis stare quietly out the window, my inner monologue whispers a few lines of Murnane’s that I’d committed to memory to keep me secure on the road with strangers, a long way from the consolatory estrangements of lofty words, frozen safely on pages in books:

In earlier years, I had used makeshift terms such as film-script fiction on the one hand and meditative fiction or true fiction on the other hand whenever I had tried to point out the differences between the sort of writing meant to bring to the reader’s mind events such as might be witnessed in the place we call the real world and the sort of writing meant to disclose to the reader some of the memories or reflections or imaginings of the narrator of the fiction.

The current of those lines lifted the burden from space and time in the cafe, as if all my little sins might be abstractions, and all the slips and stumbling to come only a kind of dance. Not long after, hearing Miles and Gabbie talk about their lives, I say to Kate as if talking to everyone, ‘to be honest, I am not sure what we do has any kind of meaning at all.’ To which, tilting a pot to fill her cup, she says in a sweet lilting tone without taking her eyes off the pouring tea, ‘Oh darling, but of course it does.’

All of this, though written in the chalked stone of the present as I sit at this computer in the dark and write these lines, was beyond me as I sat at the desk and played with numb projections in the dread anticipation of the Byron Bay experience to come. Running the possible contours of the trip through my head as though the world itself were a mere simulation, proliferated by the idiosyncrasies peculiar to the conscious subject, I could not hope to imagine the look of delight on Gabbie’s face when we walk into the lobby of our resort in Coffs Harbour, dragging our luggage behind us like monks devoted to luxury. It will make us all laugh quietly to see her wide-eyed wonder at the palatial glimmer of the marble slate floor and the wide expanse of windows opening up to the crashing ocean views and a fountain bubbling in the centre of the room which takes on the form of a peacock’s fan. She will communicate with her eyes that she cannot fathom what it is we have done to deserve such rich treatment: my inner monologue slowly ceases its whispering – though I am far from noticing its absence as we file into our rooms.

Gabbie and I walk at dusk through the hotel grounds, her curled hair glowing red at sunset. We emerge from a border of shrubs at the edge of the hotel’s garden, and step through a static field of sand-flies and out onto the talc-soft sands. Gabbie laughs the flies away from her face, and then we find ourselves between the waves and a lagoon lying still behind the dunes. Lost completely in the present, like a child, I throw a series of stones across the water and the gold light catches in the locutions. ‘Not great at that, are you?’ Gabbie says, and we agree to walk along the beach again and take photographs of the sunrise over the cliffs surrounding the resort in the morning. It will be late that night, when I sit in the heavy armchair by the hotel bar, with a champagne flute and tired eyes, that Zacharey, our blonde-haired tour-guide, will say to me, ‘Shut your mouth, you!’ when I begin to discuss the troubles of literature. I tell Kate, ‘There is no way to know what good, if any, fiction does for anyone at all, and all this talk about generating empathy is an ideological act of wishful thinking.’ Kate, listening intently but smiling, says, with the dim lights of the bar still shining on her porcelain skin, ‘I promise you, by the end of the tour I will change your mind.’ I laugh, but the inner voice is quiet, and there is a vast silence in the room, as if a spell has been cast, and I say ‘We shall see’ but do not hear the words. Kate will end the conversation with one last recitation from her story of the Succession of Kings – this time the tale of Charles II. She begins, ‘this is the story of the King who ran.’

If I could see – sitting at my dismal desk in the western suburbs, with a heart beating in erratic calms for the suburban world around me – the recitation in the hotel bar coming toward me from the Byron Bay tour, I would have declined, I am sure of it, if only, perhaps, because change is a frightening habit. But if I had not gone north, if I had stayed at the desk in Bankstown, I would never have walked into a classroom with Miles Merrill, and seen the subtle hysteria of the boys and girls in uniform as Miles stands before them in his full height, long-limbed and moving as if some infernal ecstasy has touched his blood, and I would never have noticed the looks on two boys’ faces, who turn to each other and ask ‘What is happening?’ as Miles begins his poem about a night camped out in the riverlands with storms passing over the trembling skin of his tent. I will see this, and watching closely, observe a subtle electrical storm rising up from the carpet around the feet of the students, bringing with it an eerie charge that pulses through the bodies of the children while the green of Ballina seems to glow brighter and louder out the classroom window. I am almost able to witness the synaptic charge generated on the young faces as he performs the popping of rain drops on a tent at night that leaves the air without breath around us, and the sheer amazement on the English teacher’s face as he shakes Miles’ hand and thanks him for giving his kids such an unfamiliar gift.

This strange experience will stay with me, and later, when I ask about the electricity I saw seeping into the room when we are both back at the hotel and the sun has long since set, Miles will tell me that when he sits to write his poems, he feels a force of energy flow into the top of his head from some unknown dimension, and in the act of recitation, an equal and opposite energy comes up through the floor boards from the earth and enter his body, spread out through fingertips and into the atmosphere of the room. He will say this to me and I will strain hard to hear him over the rockabilly band playing in the bar, and just as he arches a finger to emphasise the magic, a drunken bridesmaid collapses around his neck and says, ‘Can I please touch your hair? I’ve never seen hair like that around here!’ I see a sorrowful look of resignation enter his eyes. Simultaneously, on the far side of the bar, Jesse invites us to have dinner at her home. If I had not been there to go along, on the snaking drive away from our hotel to Jesse’s house, I would never have seen the storm-slashed bunches of banana trees by the waterhole of her property, and the shadowy shape of sacred mountains stacked on the night’s horizon. In her dining room, surrounded by half the books ever written, Jesse shows me slides of adventures in the Antarctic – a white immensity beneath an endless sky punctured by the mirage of lightning-blue glaciers as large as cities, and bearded men with icicles clinging to their determined faces, and while I wonder at her private world, our tour guide Zacharey practises an elevator pitch for her latest novel before Miles and Kate, whose advice seems to have no limitations, and rolls on in laughter and nods of approval, and Jesse shows us her favourite image of a world dimensions away from our own before we leave for bed.

The next night, under a golden chandelier in a Coffs Harbour restaurant, Kate, with another glass in her hand and the endless stream of bubbles rising between her fingers, will say to me like an apparition from a cinematic dream, ‘Sometimes a person will come into your life and give to you precisely what it is that you need to hear, exactly when you need to hear it.’ I will reply to her, with the bell toll of the flutes between us across the round table, ‘but I don’t believe in gurus.’ The inner monologue will know this is a lie. With bookshelves at our backs and white-haired readers thronged around us at a long set of tables with our respective books standing at attention, Kate rises like a siren to tell the story of her face. A dog savaged her when she was just a child. So badly did the animal make a mess of young Kate Forsyth, the doctors had to remake her. ‘I was the first person in Australia,’ she tells the crowd in her casual serenity, ‘to have an artificial tear duct inserted.’ In the time of her rejuvenation, tied to a hospital bed in a wrapping of fevers and blankets, she held on tight to the story of Rapunzel – from a book given by her mother – and the strange tale of the long-locked girl trapped in her tiny tower revolved obsessively through her consciousness as the doctors and nurses made their rounds and her torn face remade itself. I realise, listening to this story, as facile as it sounds to offer it here, as though all I am is the awed provincial walking through the gates of an ancient holy city, how feeble all my ideas have been to leave no room for all these other readers who have made sense of themselves and their place in the world through the messiness of words and stories re-remembered in their bedrooms and hospital beds and daydreams by the fire. There is, I saw in the embrace of the white-haired crowd and the sun-slicked Coffs Harbour street glowing at us through the window, a deep force in the workings of words that all my useless philosophising had left out altogether. Jesse warns me, as I confide some of this to her on the walk back to the van, the crowd walking with us, that I am coming under the spell of a master-storyteller.

I watch these writers perform themselves night after night, hear their tales and bear witness to their stories of bookish life. At last, in a burlesque theatre in Brunswick Heads, with purple walls and abstractions hanged from the ceiling, Kate will ask me to take the stage with her, to play a role in one of her stories. She rewrites the scene to suit me, taking out the complicated words and all the French. It is a scene from her massively successful novel Bitter Greens. She wants me to play the role of the Marquis, to seduce her on the stage for everyone to see. ‘I’ll help you out,’ she says. ‘I’ll fill you full of Veuve Cliquot’, and by the time it comes to stand before a full house of faces half obscured by the bright lights angled at the stage, there are four empty bottles of champagne by our feet. Kate stands close to me and after we play out our game of chance on stage I say, ‘I don’t think I can resist you. I’ve never met a girl like you.’ She says, ‘I’m not that unusual.’ I reach out for one more kiss, and she says, ‘You’ve already taken more than we ever wagered!’ I look into the fullness of her dark eyes and say in a voice I didn’t know I had, ‘You will not be so cruel, Charlotte-Rose!’ The crowd, when the debit is paid, cheers and claps and we toss our scripts into the dark behind the curtain. I realise, glancing at her red-lipped smile in the stage lights, remembering all my old maxims about the nexus of art, truth and fiction, I’ve been set free from a naïve web of illusions.

On the final day of the tour we reach the festival proper. In a clubhouse on the opening night the managing director cries into the microphone when he thinks of the love and faith the volunteers have shown over the twenty years he has been in charge. At a panel in an enormous tent on a rainy day with muddied footprints smothering everything in sight, Gabbie makes an audience of hundreds break into tears of applause when she shares her heartache at having to give away teaching, and the students she so dearly loves. Zacharey chairs our final panel together, asks us to reflect on the experiences of the tour. In the crowd, three rows from the marquee door, I notice my book editor, Alice, and I cannot wait to tell her, through the microphone that is going to be passed into my hands, how profoundly this trip has changed my life. I will say, ‘I know how trite this all will sound’ – but before the microphone comes to my hand she glances at her watch, rises from her seat and walks out of the tent, her long black coat clutched tight against the rain.

Of course, all spells are temporary, though they may come back from time to time. What I couldn’t know, sitting at my desk and wondering if I should take one path or another, or in my seat on the stage at Byron Bay, watching people come and go as we talk to them about how strange it was to feel so much for each other in our rental van, is that eventually a new present will arrive in time, and I will sit at a screen with these impressions and images moving through me like a series of dreams – not quite sure how much of it can be salvaged from the past, how much to leave behind, and how to alight the ride at some final, permanent stop.

On the long road north my wife and I parked in the shade between two cafes on a wide street in Bellingen, with purple banners staked beneath an enormous oak tree, to spray ‘Just Married’ on the back windscreen of our Holden with a can of shaving cream. Two hippies and a limp dog, the latter anchored to an awning post, watched us, and I shrugged my shoulders at them all to apologise for advertising the institution of marriage in their bohemian grove. The dog put its calico head to its bowl and shut its tired eyes. The sun was saturating. We’d had a few drinks at a pub on the highway, where I came upon a book of old photographs tucked into a wire stand on an empty window sill, and I flipped open to the image of a broad-shouldered man in thick boots and a heavy coat standing beside a foal-thin lad that we took to be an apprentice. Both men were looking up into the camera from inside a deep pit, and the bigger man’s thick hands were wrapped solid around a sledge hammer dripping with gore. Pig’s blood covered the apprentice’s white overalls, and was smeared across the curved walls of the pit. We put the book away and drank in the sun.

So grim, sometimes, the melancholia of all these images. I get up and leave the essay for a final time, check the pile of books beside the bed. Just inside the covers of Bitter Greens, I run my hands over the inscription inked inside that reads, ‘May the Marquis live in your heart forever!’ For a while I am back in Byron Bay, in the wet tents and the muddy fields, the treetop resorts and the luggage-heavy van, by the river with the worms, under the strange charms of a Northern Rivers romance.