Much exclamation occurs when people realise Foal’s Bread is my first novel in sixteen years. Sixteen years ago I was about to turn thirty-one. From this distance that seems inconceivably young and I was inconceivably bewildered that only horses understood that something horrible had begun to happen in my legs and feet.
I can clearly remember how for that birthday I rode my brown mare Bellini down as usual to my father’s letterbox on Old Copmanhurst Road. Although the advance author copies of The Grass Sister had arrived early, far from any feeling of luck that they’d landed in the letterbox on my birthday, only dismay was sweeping through me. Whereas a few weeks before I could’ve vaulted back onto my horse with my backpack full of mail, on that day it had become a difficult scramble.
The multiple sclerosis that would defy diagnosis for another seven years was slowly but surely taking away my ability to ride even the quietest pony, let alone Bellini, my loveliness Wind of Song ex-barrier rogue, rescued by my eldest sister Yvonne from the brutality of a Brisbane track for me to purchase.
I felt a growing sorrow that as the mystery progressed, less and less chance existed for those moments when my own soul could meet my mare’s through a long pair of favourite old leather reins. My grief at seeing her sold wasn’t unconnected to the fact that whatever was happening in my body was inexorably also severing my links with my own horse-loving family.
Before I really knew what my next novel was to be about, soon after Bellini had left my life, I found myself dangerously making a rough watercolour and texta sketch of a grey horse coming down over an almighty high jump, its rider slight and thin with her arms outstretched. The feeling of danger came from my realisation that the horse’s head, its nostrils, rump and tail were practically as if drawn from my sister Yvonne’s pen.
With accidental exceptions I’m not much of a drawer really, but these lines were a surge of pure energy. This horse, which later would clearly be Lainey on Landwind landing after her Wirri Show winning high jump, caught something vital. The horse’s head was bold, with beautiful blue dapples streaming off its rump into the sky
Yvonne’s 1995 Vogel-shortlisted manuscript, which I’ve never been allowed to read, had involved high jump horses, hadn’t it? How on earth could I be contemplating one too?
After Yvonne’s tepid enthusiasm and simmering anger at my suggestion that, as if for a dare devil tandem hunt of the 1930s, we bring our novels out together, I flung myself into other writing tasks and even other genres. Yet I couldn’t stop collecting the images and ideas that I knew could belong nowhere else but in a high jump novel of my own and that it would be called Foal’s Bread.
Casually flipping through an art history hardback one summer in someone’s beach shack library, I first saw American visionary painter Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Death on a Pale Horse and felt transfixed. It too seemed connected to my novel that was at that stage little more than a title and a file full of images and feelings. I also felt a deep link to his defiant explanation of why he might take up to fifteen years working on one painting. ‘I only want to paint my own experience, in my own way,’ he wrote.
In different writing rooms of different houses over many years, I pinned the sketch of the girl jumping her dappled grey gelding. This was as much for the magnetic presence of the horse as for words I’d scrawled beneath the horse and rider landing. I loved the beauty of my rough sketch but loved the words and their meanings even more. The words are:
Saltare, Latin for leap
Saliens, a leaping forth with a dancing quality.
Saillir, meaning an outrush, in French.
My sketch reminded me of early morning rides around my graceful childhood town. In winter, on frosty mornings, my hands were so cold I could hardly hold the reins but still, with excitement and fear in my heart, I had to attempt to follow Yvonne and her horse over any fence, picnic table or road-closed sign found. We popped over graves at the cemetery, in and out of wrecked cow bails and held on tight as our horses cat-jumped the huge ditches on the left hand side of the stock route. Driving around Grafton these days our madcap stunts are like a fast and reckless ghostly imprint, skullcaps hidden under any handy tree, over all the ugly new subdivisions eating up the pleasing old paddocks and routes we used to ride.
As I waited patiently for Yvonne to send her novel out into the world first, writers I revered were beginning to die: Geoffrey Dutton, Andrea Stretton, Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Jessica Anderson, Glenda Adams, Dorothy Porter. I began to dread the arrival of the ASA newsletter for the possibility of the next out-of-the-blue Vale. I began to wish there could be some kind of Balm in Gilead column that would at least give some forewarning before the obituary, of disease or calamity to come. Ruth Park, Eric Rolls? How can you be dead before I ever found the time to write you that letter expressing my highest respect for your work?
Why when I’d gone to the trouble of getting Randolph Stow’s home address from writers who knew him well enough to call him Mick, did I never post him the letter telling of being trapped in my old ambulance in a flood in the Wedding Bells state forest in northern New South Wales in 2005, with only Tourmaline for company?
A pang of sorrow hits that I’ve published Foal’s Bread too late for him ever to accept the tribute copy I intended to send. Even if he’d only looked at the cover I feel fairly sure that it would’ve brought back memories of the horses ridden so well by Rick and Rob in Merry Go Round in the Sea.
I was never a rider in the league of Yvonne, let alone any of the Nancarrows in Foal’s Bread. Although I once won a champion girl rider class due to the kind old judge taking mercy on me in my old-fashioned second-hand coat, I much preferred when the moment arrived on, say, a sports day at Newton Boyd, when I could swap jodhpurs for jeans and be part of Yvonne’s team in the apple race.
On 1 January 2009 the realisation dawned that Yvonne might never send out her book. I could wait no longer. My wholehearted attempts to write first a play and then a wisdom cat fable had, against all expectation and effort, utterly failed. Now I felt in a race with myself. In honour of Stow’s claim that fuelled by pork pie he wrote all his novels fast, I resolved to have a final draft of Foal’s Bread finished by the first day of spring. Memories of that kind of Newton Boyd country west of Grafton but before the Great Dividing Range, informed my writing days.
Even though I was thousands of miles away from the Clarence River, ghosts of horses of the past seemed to walk right into my writing room. When I’d typed the draft of each week’s chapter onto my computer I even developed the habit of throwing a cloth over it and the printer, as if they were horses to be rugged before nightfall. Then I could practically feel the warmth of a horse. I could feel that I really was clipping up the back legs straps of a rug as a cold wind sprang up off the river.
Every time I began a new chapter, sometimes using actual blood from my own pointer finger from the week’s obligatory coagulation thickness test, I’d make a fresh sketch. The rudimentary figures and horses represented what I hoped the new chapter might hold. Each week I seemed less and less able to walk. I tried to ignore the terrifying spasms and stiffness and wrote on. Inevitably, through the voices of my Nancarrow family came an insight into the pain of paralysis via Roley’s lightning strike.
On Saturdays, my official day off, when I wouldn’t write anything fresh at all, .303 gauge shotguns ringing out from the rifle range behind the back paddock held the sound of all my outrage at my own inexorable decline far better than words.
What I sense of urban readers with a penchant for regional and historical fiction is that there’s a tender and urgent longing for life lived at a quieter tempo. Perhaps like me they love leather not velcro, old-fashioned flowers with fragrance rather than scentless blooms from a twenty-first-century florist, gingernut biscuits that might take out the corner of a filling they’ve been baked so hard as opposed to anything purchased in exhaustion from an American Cookie Man franchise, as you flee your local shopping mall.
Is it only someone who has ridden a horse who has to run to the window at the sound of a shod horse’s hooves crossing a road? Or who feels some inexplicable joy at the fragrance of a horse’s coat?
I’d say it was in about 1994 when, as I swept the hallway of my younger sister Sonya’s house in Grafton, an old woman knocked at the door. Until she introduced herself I thought it was a horseman standing there in the late afternoon light in his well-worn but highly polished riding boots. She said that she’d seen the float out the front, paddocks out the back, and that she was looking for any work at all that involved horses.
When I unfolded her hand-typed CV, its paper so thin and creased it felt in danger of immediate disintegration, I read of her wide experience as a horse-rider, including working with hacks, hunters and high jump horses at Sydney Royal in 1928. It was as though she’d stepped right out from my much revered copy of High, Wide and Handsome, old Moss Vale equine veterinarian Alan Chittick’s pictorial history of Australian show-ring jumping from 1900 to 1950, and I was strangely moved.
I felt the patience of the old woman’s disappointment when Sonya said that unfortunately we had no work. Even the floorboards of the hallway seemed somehow longer, darker, smoother as the old horsewoman turned away to continue her walk south down Queen Street. I’m certain that Lainey returning as an old woman to Wirri in the coda of Foal’s Bread would have shared many a likeness to that beautiful old stranger.
As the years then seemed to catapult by, coping with MS taking precedence over everything else, I continued to meet old high jump riders from the 1930s and 1940s in strange places. En route to South Australia, I stopped in Ballarat to have a $5 haircut at the barber’s. A tall stranger walked in and apparently on cue, began a golden reminiscence of his years of riding high jumpers for a Victorian woman called Alma.
Alma, what an old-fashioned name. I delighted in it and began to compose lists of men and women’s names from that era. Roley, Ral, Minna, Septimus, Reenie and many other minor characters were later to be named from that list.
As for the uncles who began to take a prominent place in Foal’s Bread, it’s like first Nipper and then Uncle Owen sprang out of a fissure in the (cattle ruined) earth to sow their old seed in horse loving girl children. They were like the old raping gods of classical Greek or Roman mythology. Even first reading those stories when I was a child, I felt their erotic charge: ‘Then I leapt up for joy, but he stealthily put in my mouth a food honey-sweet, a pomegranate seed, and compelled me against my will and by force, to taste’ (lines 411–14 from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter).
Even to this day, mention the name of the late Merv Mulligan to a Grafton person and you’ll almost immediately get the still hushed recollection that he got my friend Janice Goodies pregnant. Deciding to ask Janice about that directly in the lead-up to our thirty-year school reunion, she looked at me in disbelief.
‘Is that what people think? Well they couldn’t be more wrong.’
‘That’s why I was so moved by your presence at Merv’s funeral. I thought you’d had to go up to the Gold Coast, year 9 or 10, for a termination, yet you still loved the old renegade so much you could weep for his passing.’
Again I felt Janice’s disbelief. ‘Look, once when I’d left school—I would’ve been about eighteen I suppose, I was a bit drunk and I did try to kiss him. He totally rebuffed me. Shocked, offended that I’d tried to make a move on him not vice versa.’
‘But remember afternoons after school? I’d tie Tarka up near the stables and duck into his garden to get loquats or mandarins. I was so jealous of you going in and out of his bedroom. I was never allowed further than the kitchen. And you always had the biggest bags of lollies that seemed connected to Merv giving you money.’
‘Oh, well he might’ve done that. He knew I didn’t come from a rich family.’
A gladness but also a disappointment was sweeping through me. Such a long-held myth and the basis of more than just the beginning of Foal’s Bread. The love Noah always feels for Uncle Nipper, intermingled with guilt, is part of the underlying lamentation of her life.
I took a thoughtful sip of my one drink of the year. ‘I miss him always, you know? His presence on a good clovery stretch of roadside. Giving a horse a pick.’
‘Me too,’ says Janice. ‘Mervy.’
‘The stories he could spin!’ I exclaim. ‘There was one about a goanna wearing silver slippers.’
‘And wit. As dry as a bit of old unbuttered fruit bun.’
‘I can’t believe he’s in that cemetery. He used to call me Gilly Anne! Had even bothered to read one of my books. Said I needed to make them funnier. And to put in a bit more of a story. We were sitting right here in this pub.’
‘Have you ever seen the grave?’
I shook my head. ‘Because at his funeral, you know, already I looked like a drunk walking. That’s why I didn’t go to the wake.’
‘And you’d become a lesbian there for awhile! I couldn’t believe who was sitting next to you in the cathedral.’
A mild and fond feeling stole between us.
‘If you really must know,’ said Janice, ‘I got pregnant after a party up the road from Merv’s. I got drunk. Passed out and got raped by a boy. Not Merv!’
I came back to South Australia to finish writing my novel as if on my own perilous ride.
I wrote the book as I used to sprint, my body tilted forward as it would be running into the teeth of a gale. I wrote with a memory of a Kandinsky romantic landscape seen long before at the Pompidou in Paris—three riders catapulting in a headlong gallop down a bluey-purple hill. I sent my manuscript away, fearful that my eldest sister would be angrier than ever that mine was heading out before hers could do so again.
I concluded, though, that the milieu of high jumping between the wars was easily as huge as the river where we both grew up jumping our horses. I felt that just as two painters can stand at Newbold Lookout and produce two very different paintings of the Clarence, so it could be with our two high jump novels.
Once when Yvonne was temporarily out of action after dislocating her shoulder over a V-jump, just in case her shoulder healed in time for the Dubbo 3 Day Event Championships, I was given the task of keeping her horse fit. After doing the requisite number of times around the Arthur Street stock route, I used to try to put the horse over this giant of a five-bar gate opposite where Merv now lies buried in the old Grafton cemetery. It was to be my gift to my big, injured, out of action sister. But in the early morning mist, apart from teaching the horse to baulk, success was never to be mine.
As I’ve dedicated Foal’s Bread to Yvonne, maybe it’s my five-bar, six foot gate for her at last; my apology for getting her talented, distantly related Radium gelding behind the bit all those years ago.
‘Hey, can you draw me a piebald horse mucking up with a farrier?’ I asked Yvonne at Dad’s, putting a piece of drawing charcoal in her hand. Swiftly, in less minutes than it took for me to finish my cup of tea, she drew a beautiful horse that I knew was Magpie, the hero mare of my novel.
Nothing was said about my novel in progress. I talked instead of calligraphers of ancient China; Sung Hui Zong with his Skinny Golden Style and Crazy Zhang’s wild cursive.
Sometimes very thin and slender strokes are possible from my pricked finger. Tiny shapes with beaks, bodies and wings can accidentally appear that are as beautiful to me as Pinkham Ryder’s Dead Bird. Reading up about the drunken Tang dynasty calligrapher monk Huai-Su, I suddenly long to abandon writing altogether and instead make intoxicated sketches that might resemble ‘snakes and dragons racing, a turbulent storm or lighting and thundering’.
Back in South Australia, I put Yvonne’s charcoal sketch next to the little and precious embroidery of the four black Mears Mares Girls, sewn by a friend with an acute understanding of us all, and wrote on.
Whenever homesickness gripped me for the river, my sisters and father, I would sometimes look up the farm on Google Earth. Late one night, my foal’s bread novel nearly finished, my eyes feasted on the circular yard Sonya had built of local iron bark and bloodwood: wasn’t the wild hope rising in me that my aim was nearly fulfilled, that I had succeeded in writing a novel as round and lovely as any old showground’s ring?
Yvonne lives at the farm now and even the old potato paddock is full of the Arab endurance ponies she has started to breed. A wry grin can pass between us, for as children who ardently lived, it often seemed, for jumping horses alone, didn’t we once despise Arabs?
I’ve sat typing this for Meanjin in a second-hand Mobility Plue wheelchair. The first time I ever went out publicly in this I was alone, off to the final day of the Royal Adelaide Show.
Just as I was deriding myself for delaying the wheelchair moment so long, what a spanking pace was possible after a walking stick, I stopped at a gelato van. As I carefully reversed down a tiny incline, suddenly the chair reared and chucked me off backwards. I heard my head land with a crack on the bricks. A baby in a pram waved its tiny white and pink mottled hand at me. I gave it a bewildered grin back. Someone called over a pair of police officers who hoisted me back in and bought me a new ice cream.
I’m so sick of writing about MS and will try not to any more. Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean with a catheter, or Andrew Hansen from the Chaser doing a spruik for all the ugly disability aids suddenly overtaking my house again might just raise a laugh.
‘I’d like to die,’ I joke when people ask me what I’m doing for Christmas. When a much older and much revered Clarence River horse-woman was given a grim health prognosis I heard that she almost immediately threw herself off a high enough bridge.
The reason I don’t kill myself is mainly because I couldn’t stand for everyone to think they could’ve somehow prevented it; phoned more often, sent more flowers or chocolates or whatever. I don’t have a gas oven, the nearest river is a South Australian trickle, and the thought of inflicting a García Márquez–like bath full of blood to one of my lovely early morning carers is impossible. And anyway, I last could get into the bath many months ago.
Nor could I bear some nephew or niece of the future in a temporary black mood saying, ‘Well Auntie Gillian did it,’ and following suit.
I also fear that it would hurt and that I might not succeed and find myself in a situation far worse. There’s a wisdom quilt too that I must finish and The Cat with the Coloured Tail, even if I must eventually swap writing pencil for needle to sew his wisdom.
And what about my ongoing dream of funding the building of the farm’s stiles? To allow access again to the rainforest remnant? Isn’t it after all my fault that no-one walks through there anymore when in a moment of environmental fervour I had a rainforest remnant agreement slapped in place for perpetuity?
I know the shapes of all my sisters so clearly that I can picture which way they’d each favour climbing over my stiles. Surely then, once in, as we walked as a family beneath the tulipwood, foambarks, figs and whalebone trees, regeneration of sisterly love would be an effortless thing indeed.
Some of my sisters are so enraged with each other that though living just ten minutes from front gate to front gate, they don’t even get together for Christmas. Rancorous recollections mingle with more recent betrayals.
But in the forest we’d collectively remember when we were little, having porridge on the Fallen Tree of Mr Greenwood the next-door dairy farmer. I’d like to finish my abandoned novel, ‘Remnant’, which, although based on the life of Buddhist bushwalker, solicitor and conservationist Marie Byles, also has the scope to present a family as being just like a forest that can be restored using the Bradley sisters method of bush regeneration. There’s another novel as well, compelling me to gather together its images and memories.
I wish I could sit up as tall and true in this writing wheel chair as I would be if I were in a saddle. What else is there to say anyway about the ongoing indignities that I haven’t already addressed in the writing of Foal’s Bread or my old Map of the Gardens stories? Sixteen years ago I was one of those rather embarrassingly branded “promising young writers.” Sixteen years ago, I used to love friends who knew me well enough to call me Old Copmanhurst.
Barney, my beloved grandfather who developed MS at twenty-two, died aged fifty. Before his death both his legs were amputated but he couldn’t see what he looked like any more for he had also gone blind. I wonder about the books I would’ve written had his disease not become my own. I wonder, given that I’m now forty-seven, if there is any writing time left.
The spasms that have locked one of my legs straight, the other permanently cocked as if I’ve also developed cerebral palsy, make me think it best to sing this old nursery rhyme to end:
Horsey, horsey don’t you stop
Just let your feet go clippety clop.
With one leg up and one leg down,
Giddy up you’re homeward bound.