Forever Naked – David Strange

Things were easier in the ‘Seventies when we rode our bicycles through Penfold’s old winery, telling stories near the spot where a bloated Greek convict once took out his pick in thunder and lightning and hacked at the soil on the rich mountain top.
Later that day, still in chains, the man sowed the colony’s first vineyards, planting seeds into rows, high above the stringy-bark, Penrith dirt road, and looking at his work, he saw that it was good.
The trunk and arms of the vine soon reached out of soil and prayed to the sun, bearing heavy grapes along its trellis, and the juice of a new yellow wine burst open its skins and trickled down over rocks into Eastern Creek and Parramatta River, where the freshwater meets the saltwater, all the way into the open mouth of the harbour and along Sydney’s goat tracks and sandstone inns like rotten teeth where it coursed through the body of New South Wales Rum Corps, slaying that nine-foot Goliath in its Redcoat at the Fortune of War, as the curly-haired man, tired from his labour, lay down his pick and slept in the garden of his making.
Some say the convict was murdered by his brother as he slept that afternoon in chains or escaped his English master and hit the walls of China or kidnapped by Millennials in fog and spirited along Blue Mountain ridges to another lifetime.

Or so my friends once told me, as we rode our bicycles telling stories at Penfold’s old winery.

Things were easier in the ‘Seventies when fire-ants swarmed over the abandoned mounds at twilight as our little wheels turned for home, and we listened for the familiar voices calling us from veranda porches, but a procession of highway engines split the air in two and drowned out all remembered sound.
An Avon Sabre jet once nose-dived that forgotten vineless hill, standing forever still like a giant quill about to write our history in the rows of upturned soil. But we had no history to speak of, and we were naked for it.
Things were easier in the ‘Seventies when we truanted school with only a coin in our back pockets, surfing the grinding red-rattlers on their rusted steel wave, rising to stand on vestibule seats and spinning the hand-brakes like casino roulette wheels on long stretches of the Rooty Hill Run. Brake-dust thick like smoke in your nostrils when the long-haired hobby horses drew back in fright as we came full bore into milky white platforms and the all-steel cars shuddered so hard in their couplings you thought they had the DT’s.
Silver rails soon delivered us with calm precision into paddocks west of Cumberland, where Macquarie and his wife once dug in their white picket fence and civilised the Millennials.

We’d lay there quiet and still throughout the morning, cradled in paspalum grasses that swayed high above, their wispy heads broken off by wind in fields of dung and sandstone. Empty milkshake cartons lying all about us. The children of nothing.

I never did slot that coin unless it was to ball that someone pushed my dragster into a bright stone wall, graffiti new and shocking against my smooth young face, those demented letters, teeth bent out of place. The New York hipster musical sound, a secret cuneiform burial ground. Letters without character, characters without hope. French letters cast aside in the broken glass and wasted butts of a Datsun 180B car-park. A teenager blew smoke into my face on Main Street, Blacktown, and I was instantly addicted, or so he told me.

Things were easier in the ‘Seventies when a dollar note with the Mona Lisa grimace could fill your gut with potatoes cut and diced into a hundred broken chips. The white butcher’s paper smothering rebel off-cuts in a bitter vinegar hill and red sauce. And the Hot Chiko Roll woman, crisp as prawn, yellow and juicy, peered down across the counter from Her saintly motorbike throne. The pinched nose upturned when coins were exchanged as though smelling bad fish beneath Her.

Things were easier in the ‘Seventies when house keys were tossed into a heap and your neighbours, uncle this and aunty that, smirked at a scrabble-board of tip-of-the-tongue decisions as you were marched into an early bed with the mosquitoes and blood-sucking fleas making their marriages of three. A stab in the dark and small cry was all you heard before a shadowy figure turned on electric light at dawn to announce the no-frills, no-fault divorce.

Murphy’s law and double-word bonus.

Now your boy gets two rooms and two mums, an autograph Ian Chappell cricket bat and set of miniature Ringo drums.

His step-dad took him for a spin to Old Toongabbie on the Hog yesterday, where Pemulwuy once burned down pioneer crops in the famine wars of seventeen-whatever.
You should have seen the two of them in tandem, the Shovelhead twin engines ripping up the air on Great Western Highway.

Darren held onto his back (he’s beginning to understand), but they had no history to speak of and they were naked for it.

Things were easier in the ‘Seventies when men lived in constant fear of breaking down, clenched at the appendix when their minds cracked and shook their heads slowly if you called an ambulance for their heart attacks.

They waved a hundred burning cigarettes like a many-headed god, speaking in low tones about the mad Japanese woman at the rear, renting on Elizabeth Crescent, Kingswood with her brother: a known queer.

He once drove a Samurai sword into rented turf and sawed the air with his hands. Somebody ought to call ASIO and he should be forever banned.

Things were easier in the ‘Seventies when your uncle steered a big rig into the new northern suburbs, his soft-drink piss flooding open mouths at every curb and gutter, lemonade fizz and copper coins overflowing like washing-machine scudder.

Your brother once caught his thumb in its door hinge on Caramar Street, Whalan, and your Irish grandfather, newly crowned, strolled the paddocks like Samuel Beckett on a European battleground, all wavy hair and laughter as you pined for the freedom of that trapped little thumb.

He’d seen worse during the War, but that was private history denied to all, and you were naked for it as you began to ball.

Things were easier in the ‘Seventies when Mount Druitt ponds evaporated and cattle still floated past and licked its surface out of habit as they did before Blue Mountains were crossed by three wise men tracing a winter star, when Millennials gave away their secret ridges and Napoleon Bonaparte was all anyone ever talked about.

And the vacant block stood empty behind the Fleabag where the Major once held his garden parties, all twinkling glass and star-cut jellies, European trees and roasted pork belly, when the 48th Regiment lit up the Great Western Road to the mansion house with the glow of oil lamps against horse flesh, and Druitt’s hazel green eyes stared out across his watery ponds for the silent new arrivals.

A local drunk once showed us where to find the old brick footings of the forgotten two-storey with a shovel in the tall grasses and clay, but it was doubtful now that any such house existed, and the overgrown paddock was nobody’s business but the owner’s.

And Druitt’s spirit haunted the Ropes Creek crossing on his grant near Simpson Hill Road, searching for his young wife in the dead of night as he picked his way through willow trees and mossy stones.

Or so somebody once told me who called upon him with a glass, and saw his translucent shape pass across the muddy creek waters, saying, ‘I am transformed’.

But the Major was mistaken and his time out of joint, his widow only ever de facto and long since expired, the hair and bones stowed-away beneath a mislaid plot at Pinegrove (or Rookwood at a stretch), and for our part, we all knew better than to believe in ghosts.

Things were easier in the ‘Seventies when our premiers could sense the wind north by northwest and August 20 on the calendar meant a respectable twenty grand raked over the counter, like a street bet of stacked roulette chips beneath Her Majesty.

Druitt’s old mountain top and airport strip without any takers, now divided by Macquarie Street croupiers into pretend quarter-acres. The stillborn white houses all floating in a river of black tar, all strangely the same and lazily strung out on the square dirt marks.
We roamed the nameless streets nobody could ever distinguish, our little wheels turning to the chain’s broken rhythms, the barking dogs off the leash and trailed by their endless, hungry litters.

The airless flat land a conspiracy of fibro.

But Neville Wran was our loving father with his flared nostrils and folded arms, the day the bridge suddenly collapsed at Granville, rising out of wild grasses where Chifley once threw his daffodil seeds out a locomotive window, and Indian slaves scrubbed the redcoats at Government House in a river of eels.

And our real fathers hitchhiked home that sad day, along the morning cars banked up on Great Western Highway, over the splintered, fleshy, iron-bark tracks where the shirtless convicts once took out picks and heaved and hacked their way to paradise.
And the eighty-three bodies lay very still in the sun on 18th of January like biros full of untold red ink. But we had no history to speak of, and a leaking red pen is no use to anybody, least of all a writer.
Things were easier in the ‘Seventies when a carefree cigarette could set alight the whole Blue Mountains in flames like a child’s polyester dressing gown caught up in a two-bar heater, and Jenolan Caves mocked its death from deep within, a million years of limestone tonsil roaring with laughter.
The fury raced up Katoomba in waves of crackling timber and twisting black smoke, the rotten cave mouths taunting, yellow fire climbing leafy backs, a hundred spiders run amok, dividing.
Millennials stood on canoes in the Nepean and waited for the blue gum immolation to pass, as the ash flew down our backyard cricket match in embers floating so gently, they were almost apologetic as they landed.
And the devil appeared in photographs that same day, in strange horns and animal skins for random Polaroid moments, or so somebody once maintained who later saw him turn up on the Luna Park Ghost Train when the final doors flung open onto a smiling face and an endless harbour.
Things were easier in the ‘Seventies when your father died and the nurses peeped beneath the sheets and giggled, the yellow stains of a dead liver leaking down his skin, inscribing a known calligraphy of the underworld.
His bloated gut rose high above the waist that night, a mountain of dissected lies: he was never that fat, and the fire ants would soon crawl over it.
And you wondered if the Pentecostal preacher flying down the highway could sing to the corpse in an ancient tongue and raise that curly-haired Greek from the dead, because stranger things have happened in the history of everything written and read.
And here he was, apparently dead, running out of time on the borrowed hospital bed.

Why is that tube stuck up his nose if he’s no longer alive? When will this so-called resurrectionist arrive? Did you see that? Did you see it just now? Call back the doctor! Is that a breath? Someone please tell me, I’m not ready for death.

But we had no history to speak of, and the sheet never did reach his head, and we cremated him at Pinegrove, but no-one ever said when, because without history, we were already dead.