When the sun rises on Australia, the first landfall of its radiance is the peak of Mt Warning, the plug of a vast and ancient volcano. The surrounding country is benign and grown fat on the fecundity of its rich red soils and abundant rainfall, spawning the evergreen forests and picturesque hills attracting those who would build a new life away from the country’s congesting cities. A good number of friends had migrated north to the area - Mullumbimby, Byron Bay, Uki, Bangalow, Nimbin. In ramshackle sheds hobbit-like folk could be seen planting, playing, weaving, singing, dancing, making love as they imagined for themselves a life unimaginable to earlier generations. They weren’t the first Australian idealists to build communities away from the capitalist urban crush and its soul-taxing demands, but their numbers guaranteed their seed would take root and flourish into an indiscreet alternative culture. When I arrived in 1989 Mullumbimby was a cosy little town, much like many other small rural towns but with a small population of propertied hippies; the town reminded me of Warren, where I was born in western New South Wales. Not the landscape, which here was lush, green and hilly but its narrow dusty lanes running behind the houses, canyoned variously with tall rusting corrugated iron fences and tufting weeds. The more feral, not to say adventurous, of the alternative crowd looked down their noses at the Mullum crowd and had favoured Nimbin for its frontier remoteness and craggy beauty. I’d first come to the area in 1974, for the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin, a gathering of the hopeful, the hip and the tripped out from all over the country. They came in their combies, psychedelic painted buses and clapped out utes; they brought their tents, wigwams, their domes and dogs…it was a colourful, noisy spread. Performers, healers, artists, cultists et al came from across the world for Australia’s answer to Woodstock. The festival went for a week or was it more? But in the end a canny core decided they would not, could not, leave. A large parcel of land was acquired by some capitalist freaks and shares sold to the commune-minded turning the once-upon-a-time sleepy town of Nimbin into a haven of hippies. Nice start. Before utopia eventually and inevitably flipped to a heroin fuelled dystopia. This was my first outing after the spinal injury, so, stuck in the wheelchair I pushed and shoved, and when the going got too hard was pushed and shoved across bumpy paddocks and mud- churned tracks stirred up by the naked feet of hundreds of happy campers. Of course it wasn’t only feet that were naked, part of the excitement of a festival out in the bush was the opportunity to strip away the clutter of an over-civilised world and drop the masks which lock us tight in identities not necessarily of our choosing. What simpler means to achieve that purpose than the shedding of clothes? The act has long been favoured by those in the grip of psychosis as they negotiate the untangling of bad arrangements. The main difference in Nimbin being that getting naked was supported by the occasion, a gesture of liberation and not an all-round embarrassing sign of character disintegration. But naked in a wheelchair… doesn’t really work. The constraints of the contraption easily outweigh any advantage the absence of clothing might afford, burying any sense of liberation in an awkward grin. What I needed was to cast off the wheelchair, an identity I most certainly did not remember choosing - that was the naked I needed. But the move was, at the time, unavailable. Besides I’d done public nudity in HAIR during my professional hippy days and in Sydney’s Domain park one fine Sunday morning, so sharing the experience with hundreds of hippies would have likely provided few surprises. There were surprises however… the congregation there gathered brought with them a host of bacterial breeders. In combination with the trench toilets and far from exemplary hygiene in food prep I succumbed to a day’s dose of diarrhoea. A new experience for my half paralysed body and one over which I had virtually no control. Lacking sphincter function the disturbed chemistry just flowed on out, saturating the cushion I was sitting on and dribbling down to lay a chunky coat on the spokes… Unpleasant - especially in paradise. My friends and those in the vicinity were understanding and repressed their disgust with admirable delicacy. I stopped eating for a while. Always a good option in a crisis. You stop feeding the little buggers and they die. The entertainment at the festival was exotic. A French balancing act appeared, strung his wire between a couple of tall trees and had us holding our collective breath. Later he strung his wire between two of the Sydney Harbour Bridge’s pylons and stopped the traffic while he and his long pole tiptoed across the void. Dollar Brand, a pianist from somewhere, did stuff on that instrument to open new horizons in music appreciation. Masseurs et masseuses were everywhere. The air was shapely with the sweet stench of cannabis. It rained a lot. Everything got wet. Nobody cared. Cultists propagated their thing. Love was in the air. The Pied Piper of the event, a great woolly chap (coincidently the one whose part in Superstar I’d filled after his departure from that show) and his guitar, would stride around the site in the morning mist stamping a chill path through heavy dew, great billows of condensation rising from the rugged-up ‘children’ as they followed along behind, singing the festival anthem - something about sunshine, and all love surrounding you. It was a beautiful world. When the festival ended I went back to Sydney, but from then on, every little while, I’d make the eleven hour drive up the east Coast, braving the Pacific Highway and its then perilous byways, to once more breathe in the area’s delights. Which were manifold. On one visit, a friend had taken me on a trip up Mullumbimby’s Main Arm. The long and winding road eventually carves a gravelled track into the forest; various hand-made houses could be glimpsed metamorphosing from their surroundings. These places were improvisations on a broad theme, their texture and tone determined by chance and available materials, often mud and tin, rough hewn timber, hand- made ceramics and plastic pipes all over the place, a large yellowing bath, complete with clawed feet standing in the open air, a wood burning heater nearby for a hot bath under a sky of cold stars. Sharply sloping gardens filled with a chaos of weed and vegetables suggested the human hand, but here the people seemed to tread lightly, listening to the world around them, allowing its voice. We pulled off the road and entered a house which seemed almost finished but for the scatter of building materials, ladders, pots of paint lying around outside on the ground. I was introduced; the people were house-sitting for the owners who were in Europe. The problem of living in the bush with foxes and snakes whittling away the hens and ducks kept us entertained for awhile – the occupants didn’t want it to look like they’d eaten the damned birds. There was some talk of a woman who lived with her three children in the adjacent half-made house we could just see. We drank our tea sweet and waded our way through the syncopated brain-bending screech of cicadas to the car and headed back to town. A couple of days later there was a party near the beach and my friend – the same friend who’d taken me up Main Arm, nodded at a beautiful woman animatedly discussing something with a small group of people. The second thing I noticed was her complexion with its faintest of pink glows just under the surface, like a winter sunrise, pale and exquisite; she looked like she’d probably be more at home in an English country garden than scorching in the ultraviolence of Australia’s bleating sun. “That’s her.” “That’s who?” “Catherine her name is, you know the woman with the three kids from upper Main Arm.” “Ahh.” The brief bit of gossip about Catherine and her apparently not-so private life had disclosed, with respect from the men in the room for the woman’s attractive powers, that her three kids were the progeny of three different men. Not so unusual you wouldn’t have thought in the post 60s world of sexual revolution. But even here, among her coevals, if a woman produced multiple kids from multiple fathers it was a matter for comment and prurient speculation – albeit behind her back. A man who fathered kids here and there, at least in this part of the world, did not attract the same ambiguous response and might hope rather to feast out with his mates on his achievements. There’s no doubt women still bare a disproportionate amount of responsibility, both moral and material, when it comes to making babies – a state of affairs at least simian in origin and so likely to persist into the foreseeable future - perhaps until an unrestrained technology can implant into the male body machinery equivalent to a uterus. Can we expect there to be any takers for such an adventure? You can be sure of it. I watched her for awhile as she moved gracefully, perhaps a little self-consciously on the dance- floor, till, unpredictable as a butterfly, delicate and light, she spun her cotton frock in a mesmerising swirl and sat down, the soft folds of the dress collapsing to conceal once more her lovely legs. My breath had shortened without notice as my own clumsy legs numbly stepped their way to where she sat, her breath still pulsing to the rhythm of the music. The rise and fall of her breast saturated my sensibility and tangled my stuttering tongue. The closer I got the lovelier she seemed, the bluer her eyes, the blonder her hair, the softer her skin. When eventually I had either to stop or fall over her I managed neither or rather both, collapsing stupidly onto the bench next to her, one of my walking sticks flying perilously close to her ear as I rammed none too gently into her shoulder. And like sometimes happens, suddenly the room went quiet and everyone was watching. Probably hallucination, but it had the affect of sharpening the moment. Love’s mind-altering powers are widely documented by poets but aside from a brief flirtation with the work of T.S Eliot, and Keats in adolescence I’d had scant interest in poetry. The transport of the mind into an altered state by a beautiful woman, however, would make poets of us all. Over the next few weeks I got to know Catherine and her children. Their two-storey house was a work-in-progress, the frame still largely unconcealed both inside and out, brownish loosely hung tarpaper lined some internal walls. The hand-made house had grown up around the stump of a once giant gum tree cut down for timber in the early days of settlement, its curving perimetre pushing into the kitchen space, poetically anchoring the quaint little place on the spinning planet. The children were delightful, enthusiastic and apparently not particularly disturbed by the coming of this new man into their mother’s bed. Generous kids. Catherine’s bedroom occupied a separate construction away from the house, the bed itself lay on a mezzanine floor hung with a mosquito net and looked back over towards the house and gardens. She’d not built the place all by herself. A former partner, the father of her third child, had good wood-working skills; he’d carved and shaped many of the house’s features. After doing a number of courses, Catherine's wood-working skills also contributed widely to the place's aesthetic, the wooden toilet seat with its inlays was a stand-out, beautiful thing. Together they’d worked to build this sculptural shelter. But his focus at the time had been waylaid by another woman and the distraction took him to Spain leaving Catherine with the young boy, her two girls and the task of finishing off the house, a task never fulfilled before the place was sold. He would, some years later on his return from Spain, make me an impressive couple of walking sticks from a pair of genuine billiard cues. Catherine had a boyfriend at the time, a musician I think he was, studying acupuncture, but he'd recently moved out which made some room for me. In her kitchen, in her bed. It had been a while since I'd had the pleasure. The last time I’d engaged in some version of commitment to a woman the emotional wave had flung me out beyond the gravity of caution and I was a delighted rider, exhilarating in the deracination. The amount of effort required was negligible, until the unravelling at the end. She overfed my not inconsiderable vanity on account of her age, her looks, her style, her intelligence. But the end turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy, brought about by the sure and certain knowledge of its inevitability. Not that the knowledge in any way diluted the pain. The jealousy. The Horror. But once it had all rolled on by, the bitter echo lasted maybe three weeks. Like a boxer, rolling with the punch it left me a little drunk but the core of my affection for the lovely Helen was untouched so every time I saw her or her wee car parked somewhere, queezy ripples would snag sharply in my guts - until I remembered why the relationship had foundered. She was hugely energetic, volatile; the two of us together made explosive electricity. But thankfully, no babies. It wasn’t long after we began living together before we moved to the trial separation… We still went out occasionally; on our way to a lunch some character on a building site across the road forgets it’s the 80s and wolf whistles her. She turns to me with her pretty mouth and says “I think they should pay per view”. It was a joke; but she’d been ogled by hungry eyes for all of her post pubescent years and it seemed to bitterly amuse her to imagine men paying for the fantasies she so evidently inspired. No doubt she played to the audience, a girl who believed she should flaunt what she had, but their falling for the trap stirred up in her a kind of despair. Perhaps to get a sense of what it might be like to be paid to be a goddess she took a job as a receptionist at one of Sydney’s premier soup kitchens. It was a brothel actually. Said she was on the desk. I believed her. Her wardrobe expanded rapidly with some very classy gear – the place was called A Touch of Class and, she explained, the girls had to look good. Not long afterwards I found a couple of warts on my tongue. Genital warts the doc said. When I told her she said, “Get them cut off.” I did. Smart girl. Straight to the point. Why waste time on useless recriminations? One Friday night we’d arranged to go and see her favourite band, a technopop outfit getting some airplay on 2JJ. She turned up at mine in her baby-shit coloured VW beetle wearing a dress I’d bought her. Diplomatic she could be. It was a chiffonesque little number from The Purple Parrot, a tiny, but expensive dress shop on Sydney’s Bayswater Road. I think she was sleeping with the band’s bass player and I’d been unable to contain my angst. During the argument she hit me. Hard. Punched my shoulder. Knocked me to the ground. The humiliation drove me, first onto my feet and then to hit her with one of my walking sticks which I’d just used to lever myself off the floor. On her arm. Hard. She screamed at this affront, ripped off the dress under which she wore nothing and stomped off down the stairs stark naked but for her shiny emerald green high heels, bounced her fabulous parts in behind the wheel and drove off. I stood on the balcony watching her clenched shoulders drive away in the shitty little car, the whine of its air-cooled engine like a Stuka bomber peeling off after dropping its deadly load on a defenceless citizenry. But I take the analogy too far. I had defences. A thick coating of guilt came to anaesthetise me in my moment of need. She Came From Toowoomba, in Queensland, where her dad still lived. We went up there to visit one time and, unsurprisingly, the father was not impressed with his little girl’s new lover – I was about his age. My appreciation for him soared though when I later heard he’d said: “I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire!” I’d never heard the expression before and its ingenuity tickled me, made me think the otherwise rather dull fellow had some metaphorical imagination. Disappointingly, I discovered the colourful epithet was something of a standard. Before she took up with me, Helen had been living for some years with a boy whose sister, Willi, was a friend of mine from the cult. Willi and her family lived in the servant’s quarters of an old 'castle', the conceit of one her ancestors – her two elderly aunts still occupied the main building. The quaint old place was sadly in decline, its crumbling sandstone ramparts and leaking roof desperate for repair. I was going out, casually, with an old friend of Willi’s who was at the time living at the Castle, a sweet girl and a nurse, two often coexisting identities. On one occasion when I knew she was in but the front door was locked I’d climbed up the ancient creeper to her first floor bedroom. Was I in some modern day fairytale? The Castle provided a set to encourage such a fantasy. Getting my sclerotic lower half through the window proved a little harder than the climb as I crashed to the floor waking the poor girl up; she’d been on night duty. Helen and her boyfriend arrived at the Castle one day and straight away there was a spark in the air between the nineteen-year-old and me. A few days later I was visiting again; the boyfriend wasn’t around and Helen proposed we go and see a film. Half an hour later she came down in black skin-tight slacks, a side-knotted crimson silk scarf off her shoulder and her breasts, she liked to call them ‘bazookas’, straining to burst the buttons of the black satin top. “Bloody hell,” thought I, “Can I handle this?” In the cinema I found no answer was required as she took my hand and placed it between her warm thighs. No resistance could I find. She blew me right out of the water. It seems she’d had enough of the boyfriend and needed some leverage. I was happy to provide. The story ended well for the not-so-significant others. Willi’s brother and my some time girlfriend the nurse got together, got married, had babies and lived happily ever after. So I believe. Helen was an extraordinary woman. How did I lose her? I couldn’t keep up. There was a film being caste, Dead Easy, another production for the trash video bin by Bert Deling to follow up his eventually-to-become cult hit Pure Shit, itself a pretty ordinary piece of…well, pure shit masquerading as social commentary. I think Bert wanted to tell the story of how crap and boring being a junkie really is, forever trying to score; but the nature of the scene, the screen, the actors, the drugs, it all finishes up looking like everybody’s having a lot of fun and yeh, I’d like some too. But I pushed hard for Helen to do the new movie, sure she’d love the medium. She looked like Marilyn Monroe – really - without the dreaminess. The camera liked her. She got a small part. Made off with one of the young bucks on set. Too Easy. Some years later, I’d moved to Brisbane and went to visit her; she was living with her partner and their boy-child way out of town, up in the hills behind the Gold Coast; she was doing university in Brisbane. She said the commuting was too much. I’d just moved out of the house I’d been sharing with Catherine. It was a big house so I suggested she and her family might move in with my ex. Bit of company. Help with the rent. Crazy bad move. Two volatile women…what was I thinking? Not enough apparently.
No Man’s Land
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