Barbara Brooks is a Sydney writer who has published a book of short prose, Leaving Queensland, and a biography, Eleanor Dark: a Writer’s Life. Verandahs, a fictional memoir, was written as a DCA thesis at UTS and will be published in 2010 by Giramondo Press.
Volume 20, May 2009
an extract from a fictional memoir, Verandahs.
photograph by Barbara Brooks
Fretwork: A pattern of interlaced, geometric or openwork decoration, usually cut in thin timber by means of a fret-saw, and sometimes metal, as in pediments, breezeways, barges, gables, and brackets.1
Cast of characters:
Kate: the narrator. Our heroine returns from London where she got lost in the fogs and rediscovers the Deep North.
Lola and Ilsa: Kate’s housemates. In Doris Lessing’s words, free women.
Harry: the Love Interest. Harry plays the piano, reads the newspaper and listens to Coltrane. He listens when the women talk, and late at night, sits at the bottom of Kate’s bed and plays Lush Life while Kate drifts in the shallows of sleep.
Lil: Kate’s great-aunt, a woman drover in western Queensland in the 1930’s and a lost poet.
The house on the river: Kate found a house to rent in Brisbane, a house that mirrors the cultural transitions she has to make. Inside the house, the chintz furniture and dark paneled walls speak of England, but the verandah feels like Asia, all potted palms and cane furniture. The river flows past carrying dead dogs, water hyacinth and empty beer bottles out to the bay: this is Queensland.
The verandah: the in-between space where they find themselves talking, watching the river, entertaining visitors, watching and waiting for change.
The Premier of Queensland: Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Lutheran peanut farmer who lived in a shed for years and invented a way of clearing the brigalow scrub, governs Queensland with 25% of the vote and a strange idea of the process of government. Quote: We won election after election, street march after street march.2
In winter, sun slants through the wooden fretwork and the shadows move across the verandah. Fretwork, like lattice, shades the verandah, keeps it cool. Fretwork and lattice remind us of the complicated lives of women: of the intricate tracery of jalis, carved in marble or stone, in India, or moucharabys, timber screens on windows in Muslim houses in North Africa. They provide shelter from the sun and heat, and places where women can observe the street discreetly without being seen.3
Here, we look for the corner that catches the sun, and the cat has found it before us. We lie on a cane lounge or old bed and read, and stare at the sky through the trees.
Welcome to winter on the verandah (like springtime in Paris, autumn in Vermont). We can tell the weather has changed because the sarongs have worked their way to the back of the cupboard as we search for socks.
Wet May days, damp air, yellow leaves, the river brown and brooding. We go inside. Sitting in the chintz armchairs, Lola lights the fire and we toast bread on a wire fork and eat it smoky and dripping with butter. The cliff casts a longer shadow. All night, we turn in our sleep, listening to the sounds of boats rocking, water lapping. We leave the door open and a draft blows down the hallway.
As we came and went from the house, we paused on the verandah. There’s a time when movement means pacing the floorboards and waiting for something to happen – a change in the politics, a break in the storm, or a change in the season in the town that’s almost without seasons.
There’s lateral drift. A negotiating of edges. Helene Cixous says, We respond straight ahead and think sideways.4
And so we progressed through the 70s.
I feel a little crazy, I feel a little strange, Skyhooks sang.5
Remember all that talk about the sound of the seventies, Ilsa began.
Looking back now, we could say the sound of the 70s was police warnings through a megaphone. 1977: street marches are banned again after protests against the mining and export of uranium.
Joh’s made it illegal for more than three people to walk down the street together, Ilsa said.
The government changed the law so that if unions strike or impose bans, employers or the government could bring civil actions against them and impose huge fines.
Scenario: The Right to March campaign, 1977-79.
Police announcement through megaphone: I now prohibit this march I require you to move to the footpath you are taking part in an unlawful procession.
Sounds off: Someone thrown into paddy wagon. Doors bang shut.
What are we going to charge them with?
Pause. Disorderly conduct.
Pause. Reverse. Repeat, over and over again.
November 1977: Brisbane. 420 arrested protesting their right to march.
Any complaints? Take them up the right channels.
The channels were long and winding, like Kafka’s nightmares.
The sound of the seventies was the sound of someone tearing the city apart. A sound of collapsing verandahs. The Bellevue Hotel lost its cast-iron lace verandahs one night in 1979. Those long colonial verandahs where the top end of town mingled with the politicians and graziers, where Kathryn Hepburn, Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole stood with a drink in their hands and looked past the potted palms to the Botanic Gardens, while the sun set across the river.
Scenario: Midnight in the street that runs down to the Botanic Gardens, palms rustling, fruit bats screeching. A crowd of people, a high wire mesh fence, bright lights, a cordon of police. They were always big men. The bulldozers rolled in, like an armoured column, straight through the crowd. It was a military exercise, a hit and run raid on history. The police dragged people out of the way. Protestors, traffic signs, parking meters knocked over. The verandahs came off the Bellevue Hotel, leaving a pile of dust, rubble, broken metal, and an ugly box-like building no one would want to save. It looked like Stalingrad, someone said about the midnight raid. The Deen brothers were demolition specialists, a growing business in the State of Development. Their slogans: Construction and reverse construction. (Construction and deconstruction? Ilsa asked) and, All we leave behind are the memories. Bob Katter took off his Akubra and scratched his head. You’ve got to remember, he said, that blokes like Joh and I grew up in corrugated iron sheds, we slept on verandahs. Joh made him the Minister for (what was left of) Heritage. To me, the sound of a jackhammer is like Slim Dusty music, he said. 6
There were probably more urgent things to fight for. Like the workers’ housing demolished for the freeway. But the wreck of the Bellevue was a reminder of the power and grace of the verandah.
The sound of the seventies was a heavy knock on the door. (More like the sound of cops bashing the door down.) The police could enter and search a house without a warrant, find drugs (sometimes they brought some with them just in case) and hold a suspect for two days without charge.
The sound of the seventies was the door closing behind homeless women, leaving them on the street. The Queensland government refused to pass on federal funding to the women’s refuge, rape crisis centre, and women’s health centre.
Crash. Splash. The Queensland police went to question Aboriginal people in South Brisbane; they burst into the Born Free Hostel, then they went to the riverbank and threw people into the river.
The politician was irrational and arbitrary. He wasn’t growing horns, though when we saw him on TV his face hung in slack pouches, his eyes slid around like fish. It was no use dismissing him as a joke and Queenslanders as idiots. He was on a campaign to repress dissent and disenfranchise the extra-parliamentary opposition. Not only us (the rabble), but the unions, Aboriginal groups, some journalists, even some police.
We were forced to research our own histories: economics, politics, feminism, race. We couldn’t make the unthinking response. We had to improvise.
In this situation the desire to act humanely, to live honestly and openly becomes ‘revolutionary’. …decide what you think is a serious human response to your situation and DO IT!!! 7
The sound of the 70s might have been the B52s flying out of Guam, singing over the ocean in the middle of the night on their way to Vietnam and Cambodia.
All that talk about the sound of the 70s, Ilsa said, most of the time it’s silence. We’ve been kept in the dark. Nobody knows what’s going on.
The Special Branch followed Ilsa’s friend Michael home after his voluntary work at the Aboriginal legal centre. I think the phone’s tapped, he said, there are strange clicking noises on the line.
The premier was threatening to sue the journalists who were writing about his shares in mining exploration companies. Women were still sneaking across the border to Sydney to have terminations.
Meanwhile, in 1978 a bomb exploded outside the Hilton Hotel in Sydney. Robert Menzies died. In 1979, mass graves were found in Cambodia, the Sandinistas took control in Nicaragua, and a Soviet backed regime gained power in Afghanistan.
Do you think we'll laugh at the 70's? Lola asked.
We're still too close, we said. Brisbane in the 70s: Feminism, multinationals, the beginnings of a long march through the institutions, alternative media, and the right line. Abortion referral, street theatre. Soy beans and denim. Fraser Island saved from logging and sand mining, Aurukun given to Tipperary for bauxite mining. 85% of the Queensland mining industry was overseas owned. Utah Development have taken it away…
We didn’t want respectable jobs, or a house in the suburbs. Some people had police files and would never get jobs with the state government. (Or, never get over the disappointment when they found ASIO didn’t have a file on them.) We wanted change.
We were treated like outlaws while the police and politicians behaved like criminals. They broke the law; we were arrested.
The verandah was a space of change because change wasn’t happening anywhere else. Those in-between spaces, where the rules don’t apply, where you stand between stages of your life, between sets of rules, regimes, conventions, expectations: they can become places of celebration and creativity, anarchic and spontaneous. Theatre on the verandah.
I woke with the sunrise, a wash of colour across the sky, made a pot of tea and took it out onto the verandah. Mist was rising off the river. I picked up my book. We were reading women writers: Woolf, Lessing, Plath. Caught between the old shapes of women’s lives, and the new possibilities, we read women writers looking for a map.
I opened The Golden Notebook. The two women were alone in the London flat, it begins. Things are falling apart, one of the women says. 8
I rang work and said I wasn’t coming in. Lola came out with tea.
Harry’s got a fellowship to go overseas, I told Lola.Did he ask you to go with him?
Yes, but I don’t want to.
Did you tell him how you feel?
I don’t know how I feel. Except, it puts a lot of weight on the relationship when I wanted a lot of space around it.
Harry and I had a kind of verandah relationship, we sat side by side with room to come and go. We could look out rather than staring at each other. (We move sideways.)
I painted my toenails silver, smoked too many cigarettes, drank tea and watched the river. Shadows fell across the floor, light and shade. Fretwork. I took out my notebook.
Sometimes I think I move like a bivalve, making slow progress across the surface, taking in water, moving forward by forcing something out.
Nadine Gordimer said learning to write sent her falling through the surface of a way of life. 9
I thought about the lives of women.
My father told me about Lil, my great aunt, Lily Marta, youngest of his mother’s sisters, youngest of fourteen kids. She got married but her husband was a gambler and she threw him out. But it was too late, he had gambled the house away. Lil had to get a job. It was the depression, the uneasy thirties, not much work but women had come out into the work force during the war. What was she going to do? Be a charwoman? Lil went on the road with her brother-in-law’s droving crew. Norm used to go all over the west, from the channel country up to the gulf. He said he’d get her a job as a cook on one of the properties, but she turned out to be such a good horsewoman she stayed with his team.
My father told me she wrote poems.
Where are they?
Lost, he said.
Women writers. They hid it under the tablecloth in the dining room, under their underwear in the bedroom cupboards. It’s no good, they said. It’s not important. It’s private.
Lil is one of the men and women whose lives were led in shadow and silence; people whose lives were consumed in the hard, everyday essential work of maintaining human life. Their art, which still they made – as their other contributions – anonymous; refused respect, recognition; lost. 10
All my life I’ve listened to women in kitchens, the conversations cooked on the stove, words beaten into cakes, things unspoken that are put back into the pantry and the door closed. I heard my great-aunts talking in kitchens with curling flypapers and wood stoves. They talked about husbands and children, births and deaths; immersed in adult conversations, they always kept half an ear open for the children. And for the things unsaid. Now I hear women sitting at the kitchen table talking about lovers, work, children, war, and land rights. (Peace land and bread.) Now they want to say what needs to be said, they search for the right words.
Was it Doris Lessing who said, Whole parts of me are made by experiences that haven’t been described before.
We have nothing but words. Is that our life, not houses and children? That possibility flows under the conversations when I sit on the verandah with Ilsa and Lola.
There was a full moon over the river. A small wind stirred in the trees as we sat in a row on the verandah, watching as the moon slid behind the branches.
I went to the pub after work last night, Ilsa said. It was full of men who looked as if they’d been there ten years, waiting for women to become predatory again.
Half of them must be gay by now, Lola said.
Harry said there’s something in physics called loose and complex coupling, I said.
If you wrote a novel about women like us in the 70s, Lola said, there would be a chorus of women in the background going, Men blah blah blah, relationships blah blah blah.
We were silent.
I used to keep fish, Lola said, for their long silences. And once I had a budgie that died of fright in a thunderstorm.
The night was full of cats, parrots, and midnight conversations. The moon went behind a cloud. We went to the kitchen to make bacon sandwiches. Lola decided to defrost the fridge, and opened the freezer door.
There’s a frozen chicken and half a bottle of gin.
No tonic. No bacon. Ilsa made tea.
Lola leant on the bench and faced us.
I don’t want to collapse into a relationship, she said.
I have moments of weakness, I said, when I think, this is all too difficult, it's new and there are no guidelines. It must be simpler if I can find one other person...
To satisfy your every need. Ilsa finished the sentence.
She sat down at the table and lit a cigarette, and we looked at each other and laughed. Outside it had begun to rain, one of those night storms, quick and effortless, that blow in through the windows while you sleep, and leave the air slightly charged.
We could hear rain on the iron roof, and boats rocking as a ferry went past.
the beauty of rock music
Dorothy Porter wrote. 11
We drank our tea and listened to the rain.
Sunday afternoon. I sat in the window seat in my bedroom listening to Harry playing piano with Lola downstairs. Ilsa sat on the floor hugging her knees, fine blonde hair falling forward over her face.
Doomed to talk about relationships all weekend and come home alone on Sunday, she said.
Sounds like feminism to me.
We sat in silence. I rolled up the bamboo blinds.
I’ve been happy in this house, I thought, the ebb and flow of these conversations, a kind of yellow light around us all, the river lapping at our sleep all night. Harry talking quietly or sitting on the end of the bed playing the keyboard.
Why do I feel I’m always on the edge? I said to Ilsa. I’m afraid of getting too involved. Same with the politics. I know if I did my time would just get eaten up. Like that. I’d get eaten up.
It’s tough, Ilsa said.
The social politics was tough. And in a small community, everyone knew everyone’s business, there was no escape.
The kitchens and verandahs are where it all gets processed, Ilsa said. The women talk it through with one another afterwards.
I like it here. But it’s like a backwater, it could be the end of one world or a place to wait quietly for the arrival of something else.
Are we just pretending not to be able to live like our mothers?
No, we’ve passed them on the freeway of risk and experimentation. Sometimes I think about my mother, or Trixie, at my age, and how different their lives were. Even Lil.
My mother was in a refugee camp in Germany when she was our age, Ilsa said.
We were silent for a moment in deference to a history that brushed past us like a small dark wing. The sun sank lower. I knew Ilsa’s mother had come from Poland, somehow arriving in England and marrying an Englishman.
She wouldn’t talk about it. She lost touch with her family; she thinks they’re dead. You know she wouldn’t speak Polish for years. When I learned a bit of Polish so I could talk to her, it was as if she was a different person in that language. She wasn’t just a woman who managed a shoe shop and loved to eat cake. She talked about music and theatre and dances and the house where she grew up.
It’s hard to imagine, from here, that European consciousness of language, culture and even nation as something that can disappear, or be made to disappear, overnight.
I thought about Ilsa’s mother, and Lil’s lost poems, and the language of women, which Ursula Le Guin says is a language on the verge of silence and song. 12 I thought about lost languages: the Catalans forbidden by Franco to speak their language for many years; the Australian Aboriginal languages that had gone or were going, taking with them stories and knowledge we would never know.
When Harry and I went to Central Australia, we met linguists in the Tanami desert who sat down with Warlpiri people to compile a dictionary. We stayed with them at Lajamanu, in a concrete brick house with pale pink walls, a Laminex table, and a stain in the bath from reddish bore water. There was a book of Nadine Gordimer’s short stories on the table. The policeman’s house up the road, with sprinklers watering green lawns, and red bougainvillea on a high fence, made me think, this might be like South Africa.
We had flown for hours from Alice Springs in a light plane, the pilot, a lawyer, and us. We came down on a red dirt landing strip. When we stepped out into the hot wind, some kids and a teacher emerged from the school and came across the road towards us. She pointed, and the voices said, Plane. Satisfied, they drifted away.
The lawyer was here to defend Warlpiri people in court. She went to the courthouse to prepare. We walked past houses surrounded by red dirt, campfires, trees and dogs, to the schoolhouse. The linguist sat at a table with the Warlpiri teacher, going through the parts of the foot in Warlpiri and adding them to a database for the Warlpiri dictionary. Two boys at a big table were drawing animals on pieces of card and colouring them in, while the teacherlinguist was collating and stapling a book.
It's our reader, she said, our students wrote it. It's not a happy story. It's about these birds that get chased out of their nest by other, bigger, angry birds. They fly away and never come back. They die somewhere else, away from their country.
I told Ilsa about Lil.
She was one of my great aunts. Her marriage broke up, and she went out west.
I never met her, I said. My father tells me stories about her. She took him with her a couple of times when he was only five or six, when my grandmother was sick. The ringers took a fancy to him, they were pretty young themselves, and they taught him to ride their horses and plait stock whips and cook damper. He loved it. That’s why he joined the police, to get back out to that country.
When Lil came back to the place where she grew up, years later, she didn’t fit in. She’d been the youngest in her family, the one everyone looked after, but now she’d had to manage on her own, she did what she wanted and didn’t worry what people thought. Country towns are strange. Everyone knows your business and you can’t put a foot wrong without someone coming down on you like a ton of bricks. But dig down a bit and they’re full of eccentrics.
There was some scandal about her, nobody will tell me what is it yet. The great aunts used to drop veiled hints. But she wrote poetry. And she dressed like a man, sometimes.
Like Eve Langley? What was the poetry like?
All about starry skies and faithful dogs.
Was Lil a rebel, a free spirit? Or was that just how I wanted to see her? Maybe she was lost and unsettled, always on the move but looking for home.
Lil loved birds, my father told me. They met another drover along the track who travelled with a goat and a few chooks, letting them out to forage at night. He gave Lil some chooks; they killed and ate one of them and dingoes took the others. The inland winters are cold; frost turns the grass white and brittle in the early mornings. Sometimes the birds get so cold their wings are too stiff to fly. Lil used to pick up the budgerigars and parrots and put them inside her coat to warm them, their soft feathers against her heart. Then when the sun had come up, she would open her coat and watch as they lifted into the air in a blur of wings.
I wanted to go back and visit the places where Lil had been. Maybe I’d find traces of her in the air, feathers and breath, lost stories.
When we went out west, looking for the country where Lil worked, we picnicked beside the remains of a house. Big pepperinas shaded the house and sheds. The verandah roof had twisted and fallen towards the ground, pointing to something buried. The dreaming tracks run under the ground, and Aboriginal people say, this is a place where the dreaming comes up, comes right up from inside the ground. When we left, the long shadows and the fallen roof pointed to a place where people had stood, uneasily, between the life they made inside the houses and the land that stretched in front of them, land they worked for, but land that had been acquired by dispossession.
If we pay attention, everything shows us how things are. We are part of a system of processes. When we make a journey like that, zigzagging across the country, it’s a dance that stitches together past and present, head and heart, power and place, as well as earth and sky.
Lil is the ancestor I would have invented. I conjure her up as part of a lost history of women. What matters most to me is that she started to tell her own story. I know this, even if the poems are gone. I think of her as a boundary rider exploring the edges of her life for possibilities. That desire not to be confined – perhaps it’s bred in people with a large sense of space, in people not used to closeness and confrontations. Did Lil take the path she did because she had no choice, or because that’s who she was? Maybe it doesn’t matter.
I want to know her story because stories about women have always been love stories or stories about renunciation. I don’t believe in those endings any more. They’re plots with endings that need mending. We need new stories.
How do you tell what’s an ending and what’s the beginning of a new stage? We have to invent the next bit. Imagination is not a luxury but a lifeline, bell hooks says. 13
We have to live our lives like they’re a work of art, a story we’re telling.
3. "moucharaby." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. accessed 5.8.08.
6. ABC-TV, ‘Rewind: The Bellevue Hotel’, presented by Peter Ross, 17.10.04, accessed 8.5.07
7. Peter Thomson, ‘On the Movement’, in Dan O’Neill et al (eds), Up the Right Channels. St Lucia, Qld, James Prentice, 1970. Price: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.’ p 232
9. ‘Learning to write sent me falling, falling through the surface of the South African way of life,’ Nadine Gordimer quoted in her entry in contemporarywriters.com, a British Council website, accessed 27.3.09