Crotty is back on the map, thanks to one of the driest summers on record … The ruins of the once thriving mining town are soaking up sunlight because of the shrinking Lake Burbury, just one of many hydro lakes that are at historically low levels.
—Saturday Mercury, 14 February 2016
‘Crotty!’ I had yelled. ‘It’s back!’ Rushing home, I started heaving raw supplies into the back of the car while Suzy hugged her belly in the driveway. For here was Crotty risen—it was risen indeed!—and even though we had never lived in that town, never seen its ruin slumped in the valley’s rest, scratching its head and trying to push through the scrub of dementia to its mining past, we knew that we had hung our shirts on its lines, slept in its beds, that we had sat down and skulled beers in its pub past the hours of closing, that we had played for its footy team and pruned its apple trees, that we had shivered by its fires and argued in its kitchens, that we had punched through its midnights and sulked in its sheds.
In the city I was feeling swamped like a grey, once-living tree with its crown spiderwebbing from the water. Pushing around words and scrunching their pages into clusters of static. On weekends I had been flattening my body against maps, dreaming up the streets of old towns and smelling their gardens in the paper’s ink. Towns that had been torn from the charts and glued into history books, black-and-white images of men and women in loose clothes leaking the years; mining towns that had been scrubbed from the world and lived on, unbustling, in text; abstracted homes settling down in suburbs of paper. Town as typescript: Helvetica homes. Town as form: platonic streets. All that enterprise and hope packed up into such thin cases, unpacked in two dimensions.
But there we stood at the edge of the dry impoundment like so many bold settlers, thanking the cable for its fraying and failure, thanking the sun and all the blue depths for the long, dry summer, the summer that had dwindled the lake and carried off our power to the sea. We offered thanks even though we knew that as winter came on, thousands of poor and possibly elderly people would be shivering in their cardboard homes as the bars of their heaters shamelessly unblushed, lights clocking off, fridges pausing their monotone hum and watching the warming milk; that as dementia swept over laptops and phones, as ovens yawned their doors and went to sleep, that yes, there would be people who would die from the exposed winter. The last few drops of water would be dribbling through the turbines like loose bronze coins from empty pockets, our sickly island economy going down for the third time in a dry pool; the tills silent, the smelters tipping all that ore back into sea.
So many credit cards snapped in two, burnt in the corners as foul and poisonous candles, the island sinking or drifting even farther from the mainland than anyone had imagined. There would be nowhere to buy bread. The wheat in the fields would reach up to tickle our fringes and the newspapers would be blank. The sound of private diesel generators would be echoing in the valleys, the tourists running far away, to Syria and Yemen before they would think to spend bristling dollars in our shut-down state.
But we would not care. For we would have this town. Crotty: not a prepossessing name. You would not die for Crotty or bundle your body into ships and sail across the ocean. You would not sell Crotty to an investor speculating on whims. And yet viva Crotty! Crotty had died, but long may Crotty live!
What had we to lose? With the power choked out we would all be living in darkness soon enough; and here was this restored glow out west. So holding hands we slid across the silt, our sneakers bruised with dirt and our shoulders weighed down with so much settling. Leading couples picked through the foundations, searching out those that most suited them among the low, rectangular piles of bricks. Perhaps this was not such a clear footing to straddle a dream across, but our eyes were glazed with excitement and we launched our tents over those forgotten homes and then as the evening shadowed us with dark green hills, we gathered as one in the ruins of the old church and gave thanks for this resurrection.
In the morning we woke to the sound of trickling water. Heads turtled out of tents and inspected the streets. They were dry. Were the echoes of the lake so dense that they were still rebounding off the ruins? We shook our heads and laughed, emerging into another clear-hearted day. One man, a friend I had known in another life, crouched down outside his home and lit up an old gas choofa stove. The sweetness of boiling oats tickled our noses. We slipped down to what remained of the lake and kicked it in the guts, dragging a few more billies from its thirst. We gathered softer branches and leant against them as the tea met tannin and boiled into bitterness.
We looked up from our bustling stoves.
The words boomed from the man who had been stewing oats. He was standing on a broken slab of concrete, almost completely still, a man on the path to statuedom. The tea smouldered in our palms and we shuffled up around him, a group of 20 or 30 pioneers with red flannel shirts and torn jeans and thermals on our skin.
‘Friends,’ he repeated, ‘this is a great day! For nearly 30 years this town has been lost to us, buried beneath the lake, but now it has emerged’—and so it had, the drained streets and all its finned citizens bailing and bailed into diminishing puddles tickling the dam’s feet—‘and this,’ he continued, ‘this town has been like a lost relative we never had the chance to meet. But look, the graves have been upended! Our histories are flesh!’
And he reached down to a patch of dark mud and planted a seed. Just a single rolled oat that would never grow, an oat that had all its potential squeezed out of it long ago; but as a symbol, this seed sent a green shoot plunging through our imaginations. We would grow crops here, we would settle down far from the cities in this almost-myth, and nothing that had been lost to us could hurt us again. Our families, our weatherboard homes and the years marching past would all be returned to us. And a cheer went up as he smoothed the dirt across that lifeless seed, a round of applause, and all that rallying sound was like the chattering of a rocky stream, a busy, energetic stream. Nervous for a moment, I looked around at the flushed faces, then joined in the celebration with even more gusto.
As we dispersed through the earthy streets, Suzy and I thought to plant something of ourselves in its soil as a ritual of sacrifice and thanksgiving.
‘What do you want to plant?’ she asked. She looked a little sad and hungry, and I remembered again how she had been resistant to coming out here on the day that we had heard the news. ‘We have a home,’ Suzy had said, ‘we’re having a child. Anyway, they’re going to get the power back on some time.’ But now here she was, asking this most pressing of questions.
‘My hand,’ I was just about to answer. ‘I was thinking of planting my right hand’—but I saw her interest tighten into concern as a gurgle rolled beneath us. This time we did not rush outside, but sat thoughtfully in our new home, eying the cut-off fireplace and wavering walls, the mats stretched out on the floor with mildew clinging to their sides, the sweaty sleeping bags and chaos of food and clothing. The gusting mosquitoes that came and plundered, the dozens of flies and mosquitoes that trembled the air with a constant buzz like heavy rain pounding on the blue tarp roof.
And it seemed, as we sat there, that the space in our murky home filled up with those grim, lifeless insects so that we couldn’t see the walls, the roof or each other, a dense fog that blocked out the room and trickled out into the town, cluttering the sky with slabs of cloud, and when we ran out into the blurred streets and stood there alone in that abandoned town heavy with thick, grey air—as we lunged around and searched through the pattering ruins—the tears began raining down my face.
‘Where did you go?’ I shouted as we pounded through the lost, deserted streets. ‘Where did everybody go?’ •
Ben Walter’s debut novel manuscript was a winner in the 2017 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards. His latest book is Conglomerate, published as part of the Lost Rocks series.