An old man emerged out of landscape, dappled green grey outfit, not camouflaged print, but similar to garb deer hunter’s rig out. Human yes, but appearing part of surrounding vegetation. As if he belonged more as a tree creature, or part of the bush rather than an actual person.
I am enthralled by the white-haired stranger’s story as we waited at an isolated country bus stop. Funny how some people are prepared to launch into confessional mode merely based on a location. Standing by a bus stop, greeting a stranger…forgive me Father for I have sinned…let me tell you about my sister…happened at a time when I was younger…I wondered if such chatter must be similar to cell-sharing criminals? Yet out here with fresh air, delightful scents of eucalypts, and slight tell-tale wafts of animals surely no crimes will be confessed.
I’d taken advantage of a bright summery day after months of rain.
Apparently, my elderly path-crosser on a country by-way, rode his bike, a rusty old thing, which he pushed into a space between blackberry bushes and tree molting streamers of bark behind this shared bus stop. Had I noted the timetable better spending more time wandering along narrow trails would be a more constructive use of my time. But hey, I couldn’t get enough of trail walking on such a superb day.
Guess you don’t always need to lock things away, least ways out here. Who’d stoop low enough to steal some old man’s squeaky rust bucket anyway? No marauding street gangs out here. Unless of course, rock wallabies decide two wheels might be better than two long loping legs.
If I’d met this old guy at a crowded suburban train station, unlikely he’d have spoken, unless some benign exchange about the weather, or maybe how tired and creaky he’d got. Shared snippets more likely if I’d been the same gender. Man to man, but still I wonder would he unfold secrets. Yet more I think about his words, I conclude unfurling such a tale might be misconstrued as a homosexual exchange. No some trigger set of his exchange.
Perhaps a look, expression, a physical aspect pre-empts shared stories. You resemble long lost sibling. How many lost children wandered away from houses? Or I have twinkling eyes of a previously confidant aunt. Cheeks of a half-remembered child, keen listener to verbal history. Person being told the story reminds him of a lost love, colour of their hair, turn of their head. A pattern on my top, hydrangeas-frosted in blues and lilac.
‘Getting them to grow in kindred colours you need to feed them with lime, if you are not careful those chemicals will burn your fingers.’
No idea such a harmless attire observation would break dam walls. My dress offered a key, but I didn’t get a chance to stick jam a stopper back into dyke barriers.
‘You even have similar fingers. I got a fright because your voice doesn’t match.’ He said, before I am even aware words tripped out.
For once my hair is tied up, old fashioned, braided plats, only because loose and dangled hair annoys me, curls resist any effort to control. In wind, like todays, trailed bits get in my mouth. He stared at my neck. Not in a creepy way, rather friendly admiration.
‘She used to do her hair like that.’
So began secrets he felt obligated to share.
People always seem to talk. Bound together by separate journeys. Observations of place, enjoyable locations, just a few of the likely shared details. I’ve been guilty of that myself. Just beyond this bus stop I complimented a couple hard at work in a front vegetable patch, remarking how their efforts were different than mega-weed growth in next doors front yard. Broaching how country town front gardens appear given up to cultivation, not unlike patio herb plants, or tomato bushes in the city. Just a comparison with their neighbours, I felt.
‘Only green mulch,’ she replied. Weeds grow stronger after all the rain.
Or once when a group wandered towards a disused rail station, historic buildings now seconded to a local Antique Vehicle group. I shared confusion as to where these people headed as well as my dinner plans. With others sitting on a generous veranda, settling in for the night, watching where people were going. Less to watch in such a small town, but still people watching still a sport, even here. Such sharing, harmless enough, not a patch on what I am told.
Beginning with hesitancy, as if he didn’t want to offend. Showing reverence, respect and honouring personal space, qualities I miss.
‘My name is John. Do you live around here?’
‘No I am just finishing a bush walk, heading back to my motel in town.’
‘What about your husband, he doesn’t come with you?’
‘No, walking is my space away.’ I want to, but don’t mention bush walking is my token reconnection with country. Figure I may as well ask, ‘what about you are you married?’
‘Nope, in my and 70s lived my life alone. Could have been married though. When 15,’ John tells me, ‘He ran barefoot through forests to a secret rendezvous by a river bend. On a sunny summer’s morning, ten minutes from his family’s rough bush hut and trembling with a new and astonishing excitement, John met up with Lisa; a pretty girl from next door’s farm.’
I saw in my imagination, two bush waifs coming together. Still dirty skin, work dust laden clothes, fingers stained and hands scratched from picking blackberries. Yet embracing, disrobing and taking sweetest plunge of their lives into clear, cool river waters. Washing away hard work of ploughing, seeding, carrying loads of firewood. Without prompting Bruce Springsteen, bursts out with references to …down to the river…green valleys… young love, and pristine farmlands. Felt urgent needs and recalled a tiny bend in the river I’d seen earlier today. A pristine stream of water floating over rocks, a deeper pool with clear water, so unlike any overflowing with chemicals waterways I might encounter closer to home. Little did I know so much pain might be caused by careless actions.
But young lover’s ecstasy is cut short by horror. John’s father, armed with a club of four-by-two wood in his fist, followed.
A father, even though a monster, is still a father. Just ask me, I can tell you so much more. Yet can I really blame my father, a return soldier, his young mind crushed by experiences in Tobruk. Hot, north desert air, so unlike strong westerlies of home. Not to mention being parented by someone who witnessed a tormented death of his wife, caught in the throws of a dreadful miscarriage well away from medical health. I heard stories of how my grandfather turned to drink to try and deal with the loss of his love. As well as suffered abuse for being a “useless object” taunts levelled just for being female. Little wonder I seek out country bush walks for therapy.
I can picture in my mind tender shoots of river edge grass being dotted with blood.
‘I remember I clung to her, we held hands, overlapping.’ John’s chin is trembling. ‘I might have been a snake for the way he hit me.’
My imagination not spared what happened next. His father mercilessly bashed his boy unconscious with a sharp angled club and left him for dead in a lonely place on the bank. Disheveled limbs, blood and serum from inside his fractured skull tricked out one ear.
You’d think a farmer father might applaud his son’s emerging adulthood. Filled with pride at possibilities of another generation. Recognizing youthful vigour and impulse. But no, he wanted to lash out, similarly to my dad to evoke discipline.
But nope, his problem wasn’t just an unpaid worker would be lost. More fueled a father’s double edged sword. He already knew John’s budding romance was with a part Noongar girl.
Surprize those weapons weren’t turned on her, didn’t such things happen back then. Still are now. I suspect John’s father just thought she would climb back to what ever camp Lisa lived in.
Evoking envy, forced obedience, zealous pursuit of discipline, and rapid racism, like his own father, John’s grandfather. Furious that this lowly creature is capable of stealing a promised workforce. Making a future functional farm impossible. Who knows what else fueled such violence?
Again, while part of me wants to, I resist urges to tell John Noongar blood flows in my veins. From a time when lighter skinned aboriginal girls were forced into domestic service on farms. Suppose it is more acceptable for a landowner, farmer to seduce hired, even if they were seldom paid, help. Bearing children who searched for an identity. Better than a more dreadful sin of a young man to fall into the arms of a temptress.
No wonder he saw similarities in my hair, skin on my neck, and features. In representing his lovely Lisa, for Gentleman John I connected with elder’s past.
‘All I know is while I laid sprawled thinking, I am going to die without my girl who fled, luckily, mostly unscathed.’
His mother eventually found John and carried her broken boy home. His father vanished on a quest to find the girl, in an ill-conceived scheme to staunch any further liaisons.
Three hours later, with his mother doing all she could to nurse and protect him in their hut. John gained consciousness. After a few more days, his father still absent, when he recovered some strength, John climbed out a window and bolted as best he could into protecting forest dimness. Using trees, natural bushland, and pristine streams as a means of granting space to recover from such parenting.
John’s busted bones mended as he lived out under trees and stars. He snared bandicoots and potoroos to eat raw or, after he found some matches, roast on an open fire. He stole bread and other food items, plus clothing from remote farm houses and sheds. Knowing work schedules John avoided everyone and met no-one. With no human company he communed with living wilds – flowers, birds and creatures hidden is darkness forest niches. Imagined whole conversations and joyful repartees from little more than breeze rippling leaves. And all the while he dreamed of a dark eyed girl, just like me.
John never let her out of his mind. After some years passed before he moved warily back into civilisation and got a mining job. He knew where his father lived and made sure their paths never crossed. Although John tried, his mother quickly regressed into fragility. Telling me, ‘To this day he regrets not trying to see her. My mother was only trying to save her son, to rescue me, to fix a broken part. Without realising I couldn’t be properly mended after such an attack.’
I want to tell him, I know exactly what he means, but words do not come from my dry mouth.
More importantly, he found out where the girl was and kept the best track of her that he could, from a respectful distance. A shy, illiterate bush kid, he was never confident enough to contact her. ‘Once, at a country fair, I saw her, though she did not see me. I kept hidden well away amid cakes, needlecrafts, and various exhibits.
One love of his life. No-one ever replaced her.
He knew when she married and accepted that her life continued free of trauma John might cause. Kept a picture of her with her family, one small boy getting a sports award, featured in local newspaper.
‘Never stopped loving her.’
He told me her name, compared with everything else, a detail too easily slipped away.
‘She lives in Fremantle now, and is a grandmother. I am content her life turned out well.’
When our bus arrived, John announced to driver and passengers, ‘I’m heading to the hospital, for medical treatment and from the sound of doctors, I do not have much longer for this world.’
I couldn’t help thinking the world is going to be less beautiful if John passes. Part of me wanted to be his Lisa, find a haven with him hidden amid the unpeople by-ways which I encountered. Follow their love to fruition. Blend so much in the way of forgiveness, find a way to be together. Share something without father’s who want to take control.