Our house was a simple tin roofed ‘shack’, as Mum called it, sitting on two acres of land divided into three paddocks. There was an outdoor wash-house and a lavatory down the back. Dad had rented the house after he married my mother on Australia Day, the 26th of January in 1940.
If you walked further down through the paddocks at the rear of our backyard, the river suddenly came into view. It was out of bounds to us kids without an adult.
I now wonder if Dad chose this house opposite my maternal grandmother’s dairy farm, so Mum could run home whenever she wanted to. Or did he do so for his own sake? Because he loved the land and saw himself becoming part of the family from which Mum had sprung?
If the latter, then he was destined to be sorely disappointed. The Irish Walker clan and the Skyvingtons were worlds apart, both in ancestral and social terms. Mum’s folk lived on the south bank; Dad’s people were from the more urbane side, across the river from us on the northern bank.
I thought about this when I went back to Grafton to sit by Dad as he lay in a coma in the Base Hospital there. His brain had gone out like a light globe breaking. I knew by then that it was caused by stress, and that he was far too young and physically fit to die. He was only sixty years old. My own age as I began to tell this story three decades later. Why did he, like a lot of men on Mum’s side of the family tree, die so young?
The hospital where he lay is opposite the gaol on the north side. Armed guards used to walk along the ramparts of the prison between sentry boxes as we drove up to visit sick or elderly relatives in earlier times. This reminded me of soldiers in picture storybooks, such as ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Not far away was the other hospital called Runnymede where we five kids were all born.
And I thought about how nothing much had changed. The city was caught, as if in a time warp, like an adult child who had not been allowed to mature.
Our simple weatherboard opposite Grandma’s farmhouse, was one mile outside the South Grafton town boundary in a place called Waterview. The name didn’t suit it, though, because there was no water to be seen from here at all.
At times, as if determined to make sense of the name, the river would burst its bladder, overflow the banks and flood the whole district and everything surrounding, and our house would be afloat in a sea of swampy brown water as far as the eye could see.
At school I learnt that the Clarence starts in the McPherson Ranges on the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range in Queensland. On its way south, it devours the countryside, forging deep gorges through sub-tropical rainforests and creating spectacular waterfalls on its journey towards the Clarence valley.
More visible from our place was the old Gwydir Highway that ran past our front door, heading west towards the tablelands. For me it was just the way to Dad’s bush paddock, where he had a bush hut next to a creek and red-and-white bullocks on gum-tree covered hillsides.
The same road in the opposite direction went into town. You could turn left into the village of South Grafton, or ignore it completely and head for the coast.
Dad once told me that Grafton was cradled in the bottom of the ‘bucket’ or ‘nose’ formed by the river’s gyrations, with South Grafton below the base.
As it approaches the valley, the Clarence River does a twist, as if unsure about its goal, then pulls abruptly back again, forming the bucket shape, as it slithers towards the sea.
South Grafton was the nearest town to us. There was one main street with horses tied up outside a pub and shops with old-fashioned timber facades and galvanised-iron roofs. The chemist had skin that had turned blue after an experiment he had carried out on himself had gone terribly wrong. Or so we kids thought. There was a post office, a bank and a grocer. The Clarence was at the end of the street.
On the outskirts of town, the Pacific Highway does the splits. One arm branches north-east towards Queensland, the other down to Victoria.
The river, by the time it reaches South Grafton, is a deep wide belly that nourishes the dairy farms and sugar cane properties of the rich coastal plains on its journey seawards. It succours numerous islands, some with girls’ names, on its way. I was told they were the biggest inland islands in the southern hemisphere.
Pregnant and fertile, it spills its innards out into the Pacific Ocean at Yamba and Iluka, after slithering lazily and fatly from its turning point at Grafton, and passing via Maclean, where the salt water from the sea merges with it, and where my father first saw my mother at a dance in a church hall perched on cliffs overlooking the River.
Unlike the name ‘Clarence’, which has a softer, gentler sound, ‘Grafton’, is a decidedly masculine name. This mixing of opposites, and especially that of the English and the Irish is pertinent to my story too. Governor Gipps named the Clarence in 1839, probably after the Duke of Clarence. But which Duke of Clarence was it? In any case, it shares its name with a renegade Irish Duke, born in Dublin in 1449 (“false, fleeting, perjured Clarence”, according to Shakespeare), who was murdered, probably drowned “in a butt of malmsey wine” in the Tower of London.
Grafton was officially named in 1885 by Governor Fitzroy after his grandfather, the Duke of Grafton, whose seat was in Norfolk in England. But the original English peer was killed by the Irish at Cork. According to some, the name is linked to heroism and to fatal portent, as in the following poem about the earlier Prince of Grafton: From ‘An elegy Sacred to the Memory of the High Born Prince, Henry D. of Grafton, who Dyed of his Wounds at Cork, 9th October, 1690’
Begone, ye numerous sons of Ptolemy
Who would th’Effects of Planets know,
And all the Secrets which do flow
From the Dark Source of deep Astrology:
That our Great Duke before Cork’s Fatal Walls…
Should to th’Eternal Irish Jubilee
A Sacrifice too pretious Fall:
We had kept him tho’ unwilling far
From War’ry Irelands Ruthful Shoar
And lo had baffl’d Fate and his Tyrannick Destiny
When I went back to my birthplace in 1978, I remembered Richard Craig, the escaped convict who had discovered the Clarence River. There is no monument to him anywhere in the district, as if the memory of him had been swept away. And I thought about how ironic it was that Grafton had come to house the toughest gaol in the country. New prisoners would be forced to run the gauntlet of baton-wielding guards as an initiation ceremony into this brutal/brutalising space.
Incredibly, Matthew Flinders, who had been sent north by the Governor in search of a big river in 1799, missed the Clarence completely, even after finding the estuary at its mouth, which he named Shoal Bay. I feel sure that, if he had discovered it, there would be a prestigious monument to him in Grafton now.
Craig had come out from Ireland to the penal settlement of Moreton Bay, now Brisbane, as an eight-year-old boy in the company of his convict father. When he was fourteen, he was arrested for stealing cattle, and a death sentence was commuted to seven years in chains at Moreton Bay. After several attempts at escaping, he was finally successful, and lived with the north coast Aborigines for several years up until 1831. During this time, he got to know the Clarence River and saw the cedar trees lining its lower banks. When word of these facts reached the authorities, Craig was asked to accompany explorers along the river, and this soon led to the plunder of the “red gold” cedars, as they were known. It is said that the South American jacaranda trees, whose mauve blossoms are worshipped each November in the medieval-style “Jacaranda Festival,” with folk-dancing in the city square and Venetian floats on the River, were planted as a symbolic gesture, to compensate for the logging of the cedar trees.
None of this meant much to me when I was a kid. We lived in Waterview and Grafton was a place across the bridge. Only now do I wonder at the destiny that placed me there. A spot where on the map lines meet and converge into a point. Where roads from the north, south, east and west link up with the tentacles of the river, weaving outwards from around an imaginery central cross. The word ‘line’ comes from the Greek word for ‘flax’, a fibre from which coarse thread is made. The word ‘web’ can refer to a piece of fabric (linen), to a written text, to a cobweb, and also to a trap, a snare, an entanglement. As an innocent little thing, I was held captive in these imaginary lines. Like Persephone in the underworld. Squeezed between the river and the far-off swamplands, there was water all around us, although you couldn’t always see it.
I measured distances with time. Both the north and south coast were the better part of an hour away. To the east was a tiny fishing village called Minny Waters. Dad loved it. Mum hated it.
Sometimes Dad would drive us all there. It was off the beaten track and quiet and peaceful and he loved the fishing.
Mum saw only sandflies and boredom:
“There are no smart people here. Only bushwackers like Old Mrs Uren,…… Mrs Piss!” she would hiss.
More to her liking was the seaside resort of Yamba, where the well-heeled graziers, doctors, solicitors and high school teachers congregated at holiday times. There was golf, there were parties and bright umbrellas on the sand where members of the ‘in group’ would liaise. Mum yearned to belong.
Mum’s early life had been in a hovel with a dirt floor further down the hill from the current farmhouse. She’d shared it with six brothers, and hated the dirt, the outdoor dunny, the flies and her mother’s never-ending pregnancies and toil.
My father’s parents were members of the Grafton elite. Ma and Pop were shocked when Dad married Mum. My mother was poorly educated, and as a child had not been properly disciplined. She told stories of how she had teased her brothers:
“I used to creep up on them and stick my dirty undies over their face.”
One time when she had received a rare invitation to a friend’s birthday party, she announced in front of the entire gathering:
“The icing on the cake looks like poop!”
Kathleen’s family could not have been more different to her husband’s folk. Pop played cards with the town dignitaries and Ma served them cake on English rose patterned china with gold trim. They hoped their only son would marry someone of the same mix and become a pharmacist in town.
They lived on the river bank in Grafton with the wealthy people who owned beautifully manicured lawns running down to water. The south bank where we lived was far less glamorous. Red-brick housing commission homes squatted in line and fibro and timber dwellings reared on stilts like anxious foals to escape the mud when the river flooded. South Grafton was the poor relation in comparison to the north. Simple country folk who may have been inbred.
The bridge was the link joining South Grafton to the northern bank, but I saw it as a schism. Grey and black steel. Cars above, railway and walkways underneath. Down below where I went sometimes was a place of danger. Bogie men roamed there after dark, sea-monsters lurked in the green waters with sharp talons and cruel appendages.
The river claimed the lives of numerous children during my early days on its banks. A child who had disappeared, believed murdered, was said to have been buried at the base of one of the cement pylons on the river bank.
“Don’t go near the river,” the grown-ups would say. “Too dangerous! You’ll drown there and no-one will hear your screams. Sharks come up here, yes and sting-a-rays too. Bull routs in the mud flats in the shallows.”
It was 1946 when I first became aware of the river, through the paddocks at the rear of our backyard. I was only three at the time. Donny, two years older, led me there through the tall weeds, and pointed out its snake-belly shape, light dancing from its surface as it writhed along the willow-tree lined banks down below.
“Sharks in there,” he said, “will gobble you up, don’t tell Mum I showed you.” Before scuttling back bare-footed, me running behind like a puppy, through the holes in the paling fence and into our backyard.
Mum’s father had nearly drowned there as a kid and saw his mate go down while they were swimming across to the north bank. He told them later on: “Don’t worry ‘bout drowning; it’s not so bad at all. I heared choirs singing and saw bright lights and colours and angels took a-hold of me.”
Much later on, I thought of the river and its tributaries as nerve-pathways of the body and brain with its tentacles reaching outwards and upwards, downwards and backwards: curling and spreading and spawning in never-ending explorations in all directions. I have traced backwards along some of its tributaries via the faculty of memory, delved into the deepest recesses, and explored the landscapes of my earliest years.
Mum and Dad’s coming together was like these lines on the map, swerving and going off at a tangent in different directions. In all the thirty-eight years that they were united in holy matrimony, they never really succeeded in meeting at any point. Of course, there was no pill in those days, and women were dependent on their spouses for financial issues. As in all such cases, it was useless trying to apportion blame. They were drawn together by natural forces stronger than a tropical cyclone, and the babies just kept on coming, one after the other, until there were five of us.