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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Rey

Faraway country

" Australia ", ink and acrylic by Catherine Rey

On the day following the launch of my last book, I caught the train back to Sydney. I was going to meet Natalie at her hotel. It took nearly one hour to get o Kings Cross as the mid-morning train stopped at every single station. Even though the after launch hadn’t really been what you call a big night out, I was tired and somehow dejected. Letting go of a book is no easy task. People will read it. Unfortunately, they might dislike it. Then you will be waiting for the reviews. At that point begins a squabbling with the all-powerful journos -a feud you never talk about of course, it’s all happening in your head- journos who will write damn articles about your work, happy to stab you in one sentence. David against Goliath. Quite a dirty game. Anyway, as I walked up to Natalie’s hotel, I noted through the sliding doors that she was sitting in the lobby reading my book. She closed it as soon I walked in, smiled and said hello, jumped to her feet, grabbed her suitcase. Glad to see one another we walked side by side down the long stretch of Victoria Street to the Sydney harbour. It was a glorious day. Too bright though. The glare hurt. I fumbled through my bag looking for dark glasses, still, it didn’t stop me from feeling weary and dejected. We stepped down two flights of large stairs, some sort of Montmartre-looking stone stairs with a middle handrail. Further down was a café. “Here’s okay?” asked Natalie. I nodded. We sat on the outside terrace. Nathalie is a beautiful soul. Intelligent, intuitive, not intrusive. She was writing on bilingual writers and my work, I guess, fitted the profile. Anyhow she had come all the way from Adelaide with her husband to be at the launch. An awesome couple really. Without being questioned, I started to explain how my grandparent’s stories relating their life in Western Australia had been the hallowed ground of my inspiration. When asked about my work, I got into the habit to respond with clean-cut answers able to fence-off any embarrassing questions. It’s some sort of step by step learnt scenario, same people, same order, same track. While reciting my rehearsed tale, the waitress took the order. I chose a porridge. A few minutes later, I was served a steaming thick gruel with almonds and sliced pears. I kept talking instead of eating it. I should have. It looked fantastic. But I couldn’t. One mouthful was enough to stop me on my tracks. This mouthful was my madeleine, the round spongy cake whose taste, one day, after being dipped in a cup of tea, triggered Proust’s childhood memories. Of course, the gates of my affective memory were wide open right then since my grandmother’s porridge studded with brown flakes unlike nowadays porridge of an impeccable bleached white, was my favorite dish. I wolfed it down when I was back from school. I didn’t like school. It was kind of prison. Porridge tasted like freedom. One mouthful. My voice slowed down. My jaws stiffened. My burning eyes burnt even more. One image had jumped back overriding everything else.

I could have been twelve. My grandmother and I were standing in the dining-room. That day, I dared to talk since what I was about to say was difficult to confess for an unknown reason. I waited for a few minutes and declared in a solemn voice: “I would like to live in Australia, one day.” It was a serious statement. I felt like bound by an oath as though my life depended on it. Against all odds, my grandmother didn’t say a word. I would have liked to be reassured, comforted, encouraged or maybe complimented for harbouring such thoughts. Yet something quite different took place. She looked away, saddened, embarrassed, and said in a dying voice with a defeated look: “You know, Australia is a faraway country.”

Seated at the terrace of the café before my porridge going cold, I want to repeat these words to Natalie who is listening intently. I drew up these words from a forlorn place as though I had found an uncanny relic in the cold ashes. But I am struck frozen. A knot tightens my throat. My chin trembles. My stiff are cheeks. My jaws hurt. I can only divert my gaze as my grandmother used to do, to rein the tears in, and while looking at the warehouse over the road refurbished into an upper-class restaurant, at the silvery surface of the expand of water, at the harbour so fascinating for so many tourists, I finally stutter: “L’Australie, c’est loin, tu sais!” Tears run down my cheeks now. I weep calmly. I weep silently. Natalie listens, still, speechless. She doesn’t say like polite Australians do: “I’m sorry.” People are very polite here. They tend to say the right thing whenever they think they’ve blundered. But Natalie is different. Respectful. As I mumble, the defeated face of my grandmother is looming in front of me. Each time she mentions Australia, she never looks me in the eyes. She looks away. Always toward the garden, the stove, the clock. Averted gaze like mine at that instant. Averted gaze to stop her from crying. There is something cruelly painful about Australia. Something about her past. What is it? What is so painful? Oh! The dead! My beloved dead! Why don’t you come back to let me know what happened over there? Why did you conceal the truth? Is there any truth to be puzzled out? Or just my imagination, too much imagination playing tricks on me.

Why did you send me here? I followed your tracks as though I had to rewrite the diary of your silences. I relive what you lived since we have soaked in the bitter blood of the past which I have drunk, day after day, you instilling in me slowly your disenchanted hopes and your unfulfilled dreams. I write to probe your silences and fathom your melancholy. Melancholy of the afternoons spent in the dining room watching the quiet road, a narrow bitumen track where our neighbors took a walk while a few cars drove past at the pace of a horse. Melancholy of the days when my grandmother opened her pocket atlas to point at the large island and while tapping here and there with her finger nail she would say: “Australia is fourteen times the size of France. It looks like a rabbit head. Can you see the muzzle on the left and up there, can you see the ears? This is Western Australia. That’s where you father was born.” Her voice is monotone. She looks at the map. She talks about Australia as though she’d talk about something awfully sad. Some sort of incurable illness. Melancholy of the days when my grandparents received a letter from Yvonne Richard, their dearest friend, they could have called her a sister, who lived and stayed over there, in the faraway land, in Western Australia, correspondence written on thin sheets of paper whose envelopes were brightened with the green or purple stamp of young Queen Elizabeth in profile. The letter stayed for days on the wooden stand near the window as to be read time and again, read a first time in silence by my grandmother just after she’d fetched it in the letter box, then a second time when she translated it in French to my grandfather and I after we’d taken a seat in religious silence, letter that altered the mood of the day as if a gust of sadness had suddenly blown throughout the house. I knew even as a young child that it wasn’t the right time to upset my grandparents or ask for anything. The atmosphere of our early diner would be laden. My grandparents would certainly keep thinking about Yvonne’s letter through the night.

The Tyranny of Distance. I knew what the book was all about before reading its subtitle How distance shaped Australia’s history. How right. How accurate. The tyranny of distance. That’s what it is. Geoffrey Blainey called such a long journey a tyrannical one due to the unthinkable distance between the lonely continent-island lost in the cold southern seas and the rest of the world. Flying might seem quicker than sailing, still, the diabolical distance takes its toll on any traveler with a two-day voyage leaving him exhausted from going from the southern to the northern hemisphere and from cold weather to boiling hot summer or vice versa. The faraway land was and remains an isolated island. Whoever was born in the northern hemisphere before living here will never understand how June isn’t the season of lilacs in bloom and January the time of long winter nights swathed in snow. I am not yet acquainted with this mistaken way to divide the seasons forcing me to check the calendar every month to make sure that we have truly stepped into spring or winter and that my wedding anniversary falls in April, not a spring April carpeted with yellow daffodils but in autumn April with its cool nights. Faraway land surrounded by tyrannical expanses of waters so large than they would stop anyone to escape a country which was a penal colony in its early years. Faraway land from which no one seems to flee even though the pull of the motherland never leaves you in peace as if you were mystically attached to the place of your birth, having put a few roots over there waiting for you to return. Faraway land thrown at a cruel distance, my grandmother was telling me, in saddened silence, since that sort of distance is a curse in itself. Distance between Rome and Tomis where Ovid was exiled on the outer northern reaches of the Roman world, on the shores of the Black Sea, as far as you could go, a wretched port where the poet met rough people, heard barbaric language and experienced extreme solitude. Writers, musicians and poets don’t cross the oceans to come here. I never found them in Perth. I didn’t find them in Sydney either. Each of them is hiding somewhere cloaked in his own solitude. Here, one only finds solitude. My grandmother never warned: Do not go there. She never urged: you should go there. She only said it was a faraway land bounded by a vast amount of waters who stuck to the planet by whatever miracle, since the country had been thrown not only on the other side of the world but also right underneath the planet like a chastised child condemned to walk upside down, hanging by the feet.

Where did I find the words that I have been silently repeating since yesterday? Did I read them in Epicure? I thought it might have been Epicure who advised one of his younger friends as follow “I wish you to spurn generously all the things your parents generously wanted for you.” Departure. To depart. Parturition means to sever the cord linking mother and child. We have to leave our parents indeed. They all left the coop. They were either ordered to do so like Moses who took bravely his staff to lead his people out of Egypt, or Rama who had to swap his palace for a wooden shelter where he dwelt with his wife and his faithful brother. They also hit the road willingly forsaking their kingdom like Prince Siddhartha who took to the forest to seek the right answers to his many questions, like Christ who left Nazareth to spread his word of love, like Paul who travelled the Roman Empire to teach the good news, like Augustine who abandoned his dear Tagaste. Leaving, being severed, because one has to leave in order to learn. One has to sever the cord and be severed in halves or many more morsels to learn. Letting go allows us to grow. Whoever has never left the coop will not go through the eye of the needle. Whoever has never left home will be the dumbfounded camel watching the world in stupid disbelief without understanding that life has to be tamed, flattened and reduced to nothingness. The world out there has to be thinned like the breath, the mist on a mountain top for nothing solid exists down below, not even the vast expanses of cold waters sticking by some divine pull to our planet. How come? How can it be that we aren’t drifting away with the shells and the fishes and the seaweeds down the bottom of the galaxy away to the end of the cosmos? How can it be that we live upside down and still breathe, sleep, work, catch the train, write? “Spurn generously all the things your parents generously wanted for you,” I repeat alongside Epicure. If they want you to carry on with your father’s trade, throw your chisel away and travel the world. If they want you to have a faithful wife and countless children, turn to God, shave your head and become a monk. If they want you to build your cottage in their backyard, change your name and swiftly flee to another country. If they want you to be their pride and joy, be the hobo carrying his easel throughout the vast desert land. Become Rimbaud. Become Gaugin. Become Jack London. Become a shadow.

I could have stayed of course. I could have. I would have wed a bourgeois. We would have bought a two-stories stone house in Bordeaux. A sizeable building near the Park. Best place. I would have had a dog, something like a Yorkshire Terrier, with a ribbon round his neck, a red ribbon. I would have had two kids maybe. A large wardrobe and dozens of shoes. A holiday house in Arcachon. While my boring husband would have been busy pilling up money, I would have had a few lovers. I would have loved them with all my heart and dreamt of starting a new life by their side. We would have fled together one fine morning. But they would have dumped me as they’d dumped all the needy little girls they’d ditched before me. Without warning. One fine day. Yes, I could have stayed. I would have been my mother’s pride and joy. To wed a bourgeois was her dream for me.

But then, I would have missed Australia. Having scorned the call of the wild would have been my unremitting secret wound, an open wound I would have suffered from called regret. Better not die with regrets. I wasn’t warned. I wasn’t urged. How wise and kind and spirited my grandmother was to let me free to go or stay.

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