I SAY WE HAVE a bitter heritage, but that is not to run it down, Tourmaline is the estate, and if I call it heritage I do not mean that we are free in it, More truly we are tenants: tenants of shanties rented from the wind, tenants of the sunstruck miles. Nevertheless I do not scorn Tourmaline. Even here there is something to be learned; even groping through the red wind, after the blinds of dust have clattered down, we discover the taste of perfunctory acts of brotherhood: warm, acidic, undemanding, fitting a derelict independence. Furthermore, I am not young.
There is no stretch of land on the earth more ancient than this. And, so it is blunt and red and barren, littered with the fragments of broken mountains, flat, waterless. Spinifex grows here, but sere and yellow, and trees are rare, hardly to be called trees, some kind of my all with leaves starved to needles that fans out from the root and gives no shade.
At times, in the early morning, you would call this a gentle country. The new light softens it, tones flow a little, away from the stark forms. It is at dawn that the sons of Tourmaline feel for their heritage. Grey of dead wood, grey-green of leaves, set off a soil bright and tender, the tint of blood in water. Those are the colours of Tourmaline. There is a fourth, to the far west, the dark blue of hills barely climbing the horizon. But that is the colour of distance, and no part of Tourmaline, belonging more to the sky.
It is not the same country at five in the afternoon. That is the hardest time, when all the heat of the day rises and every pebble glares, wounding the eyes, shortening the breath; the time when the practice of living is hardest to defend, and nothing seems easier than to cease, to become a stone, hot and still. At five in the afternoon there is one colour only, and that is brick-red, burning. After sunset, the blue dusk, and later the stars. The sky is the garden of Tourmaline.
To describe the town I must begin with the sun. The sun is close here. If you look at Tourmaline, shade your eyes. It is a town of corrugated iron, and in the heat the corrugations shimmer and twine, strangely immaterial. This is hard to watch, and the glare of the stony ground is cruel.
The road ends here. There is a broken fence to show it, its posts leaning, its barbed wire trailing to the ground. Facing this, the Tourmaline War Memorial, a modest obelisk, convenient for dogs and the weary. Some sons of Tourmaline, it seems, patronized the Empire in the days of the Boer War, but not much is remembered. To the right is Tom Spring’s store, the white paint flaking from its iron and the purple paint from its ancient advertisement for Bushells tea. In the window, shaded by a rough verandah, tinned food, soap, cutlery and boots cradle the immemorial cat of T. & M. Spring.
On the left is Kestrel’s Tourmaline Hotel, the iron of which is rust-red and advertises a brand of beer no longer brewed. A verandah shades the bare dirt on three sides. In this hot metallic shade Kestrel’s dog wakes and yawns, and sleeps again. The windows are closed, and painted inside. It is dim in there.
Following the raw red streak of the road are the houses of Tourmaline, uniform, delapidated, stained with the red dust. There are not many. At last, and apart, is a cube of stone, marked by a wooden sign as the police station. This is my tower and prison; for I am The Law of Tourmaline.
A man called Hart found gold here seventy years ago. Others came. The gold was sufficient, it seems, and there was water in those days. I can remember the water. I can remember rain in Tourmaline. I am not young.
It is not a ghost town. It simply lies in a coma. This may never end.
ON THE DAY that he came, the Diviner, we had a death in Tourmaline. But it was not one of importance. Billy Bogada, in the native camp, was noticed by his nephews, when they rolled out at daybreak, to have departed. The women mourned a little, out of courtesy, and the nephews went to Tom Spring for a packing case the size of the deceased. I watched them, later in the day, carry him down the road towards the cemetery, their skins shining in the glare of the stony ground, the box on their faded blue cotton shoulders. SPRING it said. PERISHABLE.
Charlie Yandana sang, squatting on the ground outside my door, in the narrow shade of the dead pepper tree. He was young, and not bereaved, but he liked to sing. It was a hymn, perhaps.
Death, oh death,
oh you been going a long time now.
When you going to take a rest,
His voice, young and flippant, made me desolate. I had had my morning rendezvous with the world, the wireless schedule and so come to the time of day when I doubt the reality of myself. That name gives me a name. But when the wireless is quiet and dead, I cannot believe in it. Who gave me this name? And besides the name, what is there? An unnamed and naming ghost perhaps, formless, but forming for some obscure purpose of its own a room of pale stone, ledges heaped with red dust, a shelf of tattered books, a cupboard, a safe. Then detail derides the egotism. What use has this mind for the rusty handcuffs hung on the doorframe, the map of Western Australia, the legs of Charlie Yandana sweating in the sun? The house I haunt is furnished and inhabited. A terrible loneliness is touched by the young voice.
So I resented Charlie Yandana. But I did not speak to him. Silence is a habit as enslaving as the most delicate vice, and as time goes on to talk (to talk, that is, to anything but the waiting and bodiless voice of the wireless) becomes embarrassing, as if, shaving, one should address some remark to the mirror and be overheard. I find that there is no speech which is not soliloquy. And yet, always, I sense an audience.
When the singing stopped, the silence reached around us. Morning and noon passed with variations of shadow, slight mutations of light. The blotches on my hands made me think of age. What enormous and desolate landscapes are opened by the voice of a lone crow.
THERE IS MUCH I must invent, much I have not seen. Guesses, hints, like pockets of dust in the crevices of conversation. And Tourmaline will not believe me.
But (dear God) what is Tourmaline, and where? I am alone. I write my testament for myself to read. I will prove to myself there has been life on this planet.
The cells are unroofed, the bars are gone. Records of intriguing crimes and acts of justice blow in the yard. In other places, it is believed that Tourmaline is dead.
There is no law in Tourmaline; this is known there. The gaol abandoned and crumbling, the gaoler dead. So all must assume. Yet I live on, prisoner of my ruined tower; my keys turned on myself now all the locks are gone.
The Law of Tourmaline. Guessing, inventing. Ghost of a house furnished and inhabited, tormented by the persistence of the living.
ON THE LONG BAR of Kestrel’s hotel (that day and every day, imagine) three fly traps. And the prisoners climbing and falling back continually with a soft, intermittent, sickening fizz. Glasses and elbows and stains of liquor around them. The window panes painted over, the air close, but cooler; the smell of sweat overlaid with the clean and bitter tang of dust. Perhaps a sharper scent, too, from the leaves of myall baking in the sun.
And through the open door, a road of daylight leading to the cash register, and striking deep jewel-tones from liqueurs that will never be drunk in Tourmaline. Striking also a gold bangle on the wrist of Deborah, in which the sombre green of the walls merges with the tawny glimmer of her half-caste skin.
And rising on Deborah herself, tall, very straight; her back uncompromising and austere, her calm hands folded. Tallness in her character, making her remote: almost, at times (that aloofness partly obscuring her), invisible. But timid, too, the profound darkness of her eyes unwilling to be looked into. Imagine her there.
Unlistening, wrapped in her clouds of exile, absorbed in her bangle, in which the room has intruded a confused and gentler impression of itself.
And then Kestrel, a black line in the bangle, but himself solid enough, leaning over the bar and talking to Rock. The black forelock hanging over his black Celt’s brow, and his face suggesting experience of every bitterness the world can offer. And yet, not old (at thirty-five, alas), not ugly, not knowing much of life beyond Tourmaline. With bitterness not in the lines of his face (smooth, almost a mask) but in the thin, bent, vulnerable lips dear God, more like a hawk’s beak than a mouth and a little, more than a little, in the soft voice. And yet (at least until Deborah came to distract him from drink) with something altogether conflicting to be surprised at times in his eyes. Imagine him there.
And (Rock speaking) looking round perhaps at her. And she (aware of him, of course, in her bangle) lifting her head to meet his eyes. But never smiling, neither one. Always and only that: the encounter of eyes staring as if through windows, and the whole room filled with despair. A strange love, indeed. But loving bitterly.
And from him, it might be, interrupting Rock: “What are you dreaming about?”
And from Deborah: “When will the truck come?” Her eyes down on her bangle again.
And so, a communication made. Incapable of conversation both of , them, except with others. Throwing words at one another, words meaning all one thing. Look, I am here, I have not gone from you, not yet.
And imagine Rock, made sad by them, gazing into his rum. A martyr to sadness, that large and wooden man. Draining his glass and picking up his hat, and turning towards Deborah to nod to her, or smile, something, but finding her drowned in her bangle. And so going past her and into the street of Tourmaline, that road I have described already, as soft with dust underfoot as if it had been carpeted with red fur, but hot and solid rock below for all that.
And they behind him in their desperate room, saying nothing. The air dull and heavy, the light greenish, a clock cutting across the sizzling of the captive flies.
Easy, easy to imagine them there forever; and the red dust rising to bury them as they stand, like the householders of Pompeii.
To BEGIN, I must imagine and invent.
Tom Spring, on a rickety chair, behind the counter of his store, sleeves rolled up on his thin strong alms. A small strong thin man, Tom, quiet, so quiet one might stop and listen, in surprise. A deep Quaker quiet, an act of religion, that might help his soul to become like a great cave and trap and amplify the faint whisperings of God that was the silence he was building, behind his quiet eyes, under his thinning hair. Imagine him there.
A fly or two whining and bumping at the window. And the cat rapt, oblivious, like one who has received enlightenment.
And Mary Spring, in the kitchen perhaps, or coming in to spray the flies (which, it could be, she heard from another room, shattering the holy calm) with her dark greying hair and her plump alms, her immovable charity. Imagine her there.
And the belts, boots, billycans, bridles and halters and flypapers hanging from the rafters. The rust. The dust, needing no apology, since Tourmaline dust is nothing if not sterile. The piles of blankets and shirts, trousers and tinned food on tables and shelves.
And the flies, on their backs, kicking and fizzing a little before dying. And then silence, unbroken even by God.
AND OUTSIDE, under Kestrel’s verandah, men sitting in the dust; propped against a wall, sharp knees drawn up, with glasses in their hands. Ah, Tourmaline is a great leveller. Their clothes, their bark faces, their attitudes identical; their lassitude a communal affair, or perhaps a form of pestilence. And under Tom Spring’s verandah, two tired black men, asleep. Imagine all of these.
And Byrne on the war memorial, sprawled across the step with his guitar, drunk, his eyes in their cavernous sockets obscure with it, satanic eyebrows bent like a pair of kylies. Kestrel’s cousin, poor Byrnie, with his devilish face and no vice in him. A gentle man, and virtuous too (but indeed there is not much scope for sin in Tourmaline). Imagine him there.
Calling out to Rock, perhaps: “I’m broke, Rocky. Ah Rocky, I’m not drunk enough.”
Or singing, brushing the sharp chords from his guitar.
And in the distance a cloud of red dust, a glint of metal. A murmur among the lounging bodies. “The truck. The truck.” And Kestrel issuing from his door, and Mary Spring from hers.
And myself, pacing up the road from my prison, with long authoritative strides. My hair grey and streaked, like last year’s stubble, my face like an aerial photograph of the most barren ranges in the land. Imagine me well.
All of us, all Tourmaline, waiting in the street. And the truck slowly coming, its hot green paint powdered with Tourmaline dust, a grotesque hand of yellow metal dangling beside the driver’s door. Waiting, all of us.
ALL but Byrne, who swept the chords of his guitar, and sang a song of his Scottish mother’s, keening in drunken grief.
New Holland is a barren place,
In it there grows no grain,
Nor any habitation
Wherein for to remain . . . .
This piece of fiction eventually became a novel, also named Tourmaline, published in 1963.