Issue 57, Spring 1974
All night the sleeper sleeps close to a board, irons rattle, a violin played aft vibrates along the side, the body of the ship rises and falls, the engines beat on through seven hundred sleeps. The first day, yellow cliffs, blue coasts, next day, the steep green island south; a new world. Homeward bound on that ship in 1928, a Lithuanian woman in grey knitted skullcap, fifty five, short, sour, salty; a tall English woman, eighty-four in black, small hat and scarf, who stands for hours by the lounge wall waiting for the Great Bezu to rise; a missionary woman, thirty-nine invalided home, worn by tropical disease, her soft dark skin like old chamois; she is going back to the town, street, church she left eighteen years before, because of a painful love-affair with the pastor: his wife now dead, he has just married a girl from the choir, “Just as I was then,” she says. There’s an Australian girl, lively, thin, black hair flying, doing tricks with a glass of water, by the big hold aft, and around her her new nation, Sicilians, her husband one—they are playing the fiddle. There’s a red gold girlish mother from the Northern Rivers, scurrying, chattering, collecting cronies. Three times she booked for England, twice canceled; the third time, her youngest daughter brought her to the boat in Sydney. Three unmarried daughters, “Oh, but we are not like other families; we cannot bear to part.” Before Hobart, she telegraphs that she will land at Melbourne, go home by train; but they telegraph, “Go on. Mother, please.” “They don’t say how they are!” She is faded, sleepless, “What are they doing now?” At Melbourne, the women dissuade her and she goes on. Across the surly Bight they make her laugh at herself; she laughs and turns away, aggrieved. As we approach Fremantle, she is dreadfully disturbed; the ship may dock in the night and leave before morning. She sends a message to the Captain. At Fremantle, she telegraphs, disembarks, her rose color all back. “I’m going home! They’ll be getting ready! Oh, what a party we’ll have!” “What about the presents?” “I’ll give them back; I did before.”
There’s a country minister and his wife, two dusty black bundles who conduct services in the cabin before a number of meek coloured bundles in Sunday hats. The couple gain in stature the farther they travel, until in the Red Sea, having lost all provincial glumness, the minister shouldering tall against the railing, arm and finger stretched, explains the texts, the riddle of the Pyramids, the meaning of Revelations.
For years, I thought hazily about returning; and like that, it would be, in just such a varied society, myself unhampered, landing unknown, “Poor among the poor” (a line of Kate Brown’s I always liked) and would see for myself. After I had looked round lower Sydney where I walked every morning and evening of my high school, college and work life, I would go out and stand in front of Lydham Hill, the old sandstone cottage on a ridge which, from a distance looks east over Botany Bay, straight between Cape Banks and Cape Solander, to the Pacific; and the other way, due west, over a grass patch and the yellow road to Stone Creek, to the Blue Mountains. That is how it was when my cousin and I lived there with other little ones and played in the long grass and under the old pines.
I knew all that was gone; they had driven surveyors’ pegs into the gardens, the neglected orchard, before we left for Watsons Bay; and a friend in the Mitchell Library archives some years ago sent me coloured slides of the house that is. But still I would go and look at the homestead.
The other place—“Watsons”? By a magic that I came by by accident, I was able to transport Watsons noiselessly and as if it were an emulsion or a streak of mist to the Chesapeake; and truly, the other place is not there for me anymore; the magician must believe in himself. And then for long years I had a nightmare, that I was back at Watsons, without a penny saved for my trip abroad, my heart like a stone. It was otherwise. I came by air, the sailor dropped by a , Ulysses home without all that reconnoitering of coats, a temporary citizen of a flying village with fiery windows, creaking crashing across the star-splattered dark; and looking down on the horizontal rainbows which lie at dawn around Athens, around Darwin,
Unlike the ship, though close-packed as a crate of eggs, we travel with people we may hear but never see. There is only one street in the flying village and in it you mainly see children conducted up and down. Beside me, is a Greek-born mother with her Australian-born son, aged seven, she talking across the alley in English to her Greek-born neighbors, about the good life in Australia, the peace, the prospects, the education. What you hear in her tones is the good news, the rich boast delivered somewhere outside Athens to the grandparents; it is a wonderful country, we are lucky to be there, no social struggle, plenty of work, success ahead, money everywhere, no colour people. (It turns out she thinks this.) Standing now in the alley stretching, a tall Italian proud that he has been in the country forty-two years (a year longer than my absence). There are fourteen children of all ages, three high-stomached young women hurrying out to give birth in the lucky place. Few get much sleep but all are good-tempered, it does not matter; their urge and hope is on, on. “Are you an Australian?” “Yes.” I am looked at with consideration.
We are a day late, mysteriously stalled at Bangkok: and the talk is of husbands, friends waiting. It is a neighbor climate—our friendships are nearly three days old; but there is no time for histories and secrets to come out. They will be met soon, go off by plane, train and car, I will never know them.
As for me, high up, almost lunar, I could not take my eyes from the distant earth, every spine and wrinkle visible in the dry air. There did not seem to be a cloud between Darwin and Sydney. Our fire bird lazily paddled (so it seemed against the motionless rush of greater vessels up there) under the broad overhang and what a sight all night !the downpour of stars into the gulf that is not a gulf. In Australia I never lived in suburban or city streets, hut with wide waters and skies and this life expanded was coming home to me; you are nearer there (in Australia) to the planets. Even more now—when we have all got a bit of the astronaut in us.
At earliest dawn, the scored and plaited land, water-rivers like trickles of mercury, sand-rivers, the olive furred hide of the red eucalypt land sprawling.
Before that, at Darwin, an airfield in reconstruction. After turnstiles and a forbidding yellow plank staircase, at the top we find a large lounge and in the center, a small trellissed horseshoe bar, a Chinese gentleman presiding. What good sense, the Australians, what humanity! It is 3:15 a.m. and we are exhausted.
It was there, over the walls, through partitions, in the women’s rooms, that there came in high, tired, bang- slapping voices, “Isn’t it good to be home?” “Yes, what a relief!” “Better than Europe!” “Oh, yes, I had enough Europe.” And carolling the gladness like magpies singing with parrots, strangers behind doors, “Yes, it is good to be home.” (One comes out.) “How long were you in Europe?” “Three weeks-three long weeks. And you?” “Two months.” “How did you stand it?” (Forty years of Europe! I left quietly.)
Novalis said, my friend Dorothy Green remarks, that you must know many lands to be at home on earth; perhaps it is that you must be at home on earth to know many lands. A child in Australia, in the home of an active naturalist who loved the country and knew scientists, nature-lovers, all kinds of keen stirring men and women who found their home on earth, I hearing of them, felt at home; this was my first, strongest feeling in babyhood. I have had many homes, am easily at home, requiring very little. My first novel (before Seven Poor Men of Sydney) was to be called The Young Man Will Go Far and then. The Wraith and the Wanderer, two different novels. (I Still have part MSS.) The Wanderer, once he has started out in company of the Wraith, the tramp and his whisperer, does not look over his shoulder. He does not think of where to live, somewhere, anywhere; anything may happen, awkward and shameful things do happen; he does not believe it when life is good; by thirty all is not done, neither the shames nor the lucky strikes. He takes no notice, it is his equal but different fate, he marries a stranger, loves an outlaw, neighbors with many, speaks with tongues. So that if he should cross the high bridge of air sometimes, going homewards, he is also on the outward path.