Bridge over the River Memory – Jeanine Leane

Prince Alfred Bridge, Gundagai

When I come back I remember it has
been a long time.
Long time passing since
I came back along this track to Gundagai –
town of my childhood.
There are many ghosts – I hear
their voices.

I stand on a solid red-gum bridge – the
longest wooden bridge in the world.
The Irish nuns told me this on a good
day under the gothic arches in the convent
on the hill where I learnt about Australian history.
‘This continent, Australia, is a young country,’
they told us. ‘The history of this place is very
short – shortest in the world!’
They’d seen the world – the nuns.
Maps were pinned on the wall to show
how far they’d travelled to spread the word.
I’d only seen my Country.
The longest bridge and the shortest history –
that’s what I learnt.

Prince Alfred Bridge they called it – built
last century – by the pioneers as
they opened up the lands for progress.
Our teachers said so.
How many river-gums were felled? What
were their names before they were rearranged
across the river – once their life blood.
What was their history?
My Grandmother said this place is old.
She said my teachers don’t know the stories.
I listened.
On a bad day you could be beaten
for asking the wrong questions about
the short history and the long bridge.
At school I learnt to hold my tongue.

The water under the bridge ripples over
my memory now. The bend of the
Murrumbidgee – a deep archive –
flows steady and slow.
I walk on the bridge and I remember how
long it use to take to cross on my little
legs clinging tight to the side rail as huge
wheat and wool trucks thundered over the
ancient planks laden with the wealth
of the nation.

Sometimes the river rose so high it swallowed
the bridge and the town. Short history almost
washed away by higher, older tides.
No trucks now. The bridge long ago closed –
steel and concrete girders bypass the town.
The wealth of the nation rumbles down
different roads.

On the other side I look back across
the flood plains. The old stone convent on
the hill is empty.
I come back after seeing the world.
I hear my Grandmother again.
The bridge is short now.
But this history of place is still
deep and long.