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Montebello : A Memoir - Robert Drewe

Montebello

A Memoir

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Published: 26th September 2012
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Published: 26th September 2012
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Listen to me,' my mother says. 'They've let off an atom bomb today. Right here in W.A. Atom bombs worry the blazes out of me, and I want you at home.'

In the sleepy and conservative 1950s the British began a series of nuclear tests in the Montebello archipelago off the west coast of Australia. Even today, few people know about the three huge atom bombs that were detonated there, but they lodged in the consciousness of the young Robert Drewe and would linger with him for years to come.

In this moving sequel to The Shark Net, and with his characteristic frankness, humour and cinematic imagery, Drewe travels to the Montebellos to visit the territory that has held his imagination since childhood. He soon finds himself overtaken by memories and reflections on his own 'islomania'. In the aftermath of both man-made and natural events that have left a permanent mark on the Australian landscape and psyche – from nuclear tests and the mining boom to shark attacks along the coast – Drewe examines how comfortable and familiar terrain can quickly become a site of danger, and how regeneration and love can emerge from chaos and loss.

About the Author

Robert Drewe was born in Melbourne on January 9, 1943, but from the age of six, when his father moved the family west to a better job in Perth, he grew up and was educated on the West Australian coast.

The Swan River and Indian Ocean coast, where he learned to swim and surf, made an immediate and lasting impression on him. At Hale School he was captain of the school swimming team and editor of the school magazine, the 'Cygnet'. Swimming and publishing have remained interests all his life On his 18th birthday, already wishing to be a writer but unsure 'who was in charge of Writing', he joined 'The West Australian' as a cadet reporter. Three years later he was recruited by 'The Age' in Melbourne, and was made chief of that newspaper's Sydney bureau a year later, at 22. Sydney became home for him and his growing family, mostly in a small sandstone terrace in Euroka Street, North Sydney, where Henry Lawson had once lived.

Robert Drewe became, variously, a well-known columnist, features editor, literary editor and special writer on 'The Australian' and the 'Bulletin'. During this time he travelled widely throughout Asia and North America, won two Walkley Awards for journalism and was awarded a Leader Grant travel scholarship by the United States Government.

While still in his twenties, he turned from journalism to writing fiction. Beginning with 'The Savage Crows' in 1976, his books include the widely translated and acclaimed 'A Cry in the Jungle Bar', 'The Bodysurfers', 'Fortune', 'The Bay of Contented Men', 'Our Sunshine','The Drowner', 'Grace' and 'The Rip', as well as a prize-winning memoir, 'The Shark Net', and the non-fiction 'Walking Ella'.

'Fortune' won the fiction category of the National Book Council Award, 'The Bay of Contented Men' won a Commonwealth Writers' Prize for the best book in Australasia and South-East Asia, and 'The Drowner' made Australian literary history by becoming the first novel to win the Premier's Literary Prize in every State. It also won the Australian Book of the Year Prize, the Adelaide Festival Prize for literature and was voted one of the ten best international novels of the decade. 'The Shark Net' won the Western Australian Premier's Prize for Non-Fiction, the Courier Mail Book of the Year Prize and the Vision Australia Award.

'Our Sunshine' was made into an international film, retitled Ned Kelly, directed by Gregor Jordan and starring Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom and Naomi Watts. 'The Shark Net' was adapted for an ABC-BBC-produced international television mini-series and a BBC radio drama. 'The Bodysurfers', also became a successful ABC and BBC TV mini-series and was adapted for radio and the theatre.

'The Bodysurfers' and 'Our Sunshine' have been republished internationally as Penguin Modern Classics. To be published shortly by Penguin is a second volume of memoir, 'Montebello'.

Robert Drewe is also the editor of two international short-story anthologies, 'The Penguin Book of the Beach' and 'The Penguin Book of the City', and edited 'Best Australian Stories' in 2006 and 2007 and 'Best Australian Essays' in 2010. He has been a 'Sydney Morning Herald' film critic, and his play, 'South American Barbecue', was first performed at Sydney's Belvoir Street Theatre in 1991.

Awarded a special Australian Artists' Creative Fellowship by the then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, he has also received an honorary doctorate in literature from the University of Queensland, and an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Western Australia. He has lived and worked in San Francisco and London and been writer-in-residence at the University of Western Australia, LaTrobe University in Melbourne, the South Bank Centre at Royal Festival Hall, London, and at Brixton Prison in London.

1 The Fats Domino Voice

It was that fabled occasion, a dark and stormy night, the sea just a blacker inked line in the distance, and I was lying in bed in the deep gloom of three a.m., singing Blueberry Hill in my Fats Domino voice.

We were on the trailing edge of a cyclone and wind buffeted the timbers of my rented cottage on the cliff edge at Broken Head. The house's rocking gave the sensation of being in a sailing ship. Palm fronds lashed and rasped against the window, more rain, endless rain, thundered on the tin roof, and I'd hardly have been surprised if the cottage, an architectural folly that resembled a nineteenth-century schooner almost as much as a house, sailed over the cliff onto the sodden sugarcane fields below.

If we're speaking of the true life, of genuine self-awareness, it was a night of pivotal moments when things could go either way. I could either plummet to the depths or shape up, brush myself down, pick myself up, pull my finger out, turn a frown upside down. Basically, get a grip. The odds at that stage favoured plummeting.

Anna, my anxious seven-year-old daughter and my youngest child, was insisting I sing to her, and had chosen the song. As the rain crashed down, she complained, 'You need to sing louder.' If I sang any louder I'd lose the throaty timbre of Fats Domino. Anyway my breathing was still shallow and irregular because I'd just killed a brown snake by her bedroom.

She was propped up beside me in bed, clasping my left hand. I was lying on my right side, and the hand-holding and singing position twisted my old lower-back injury. I seemed to have pulled a muscle while killing the snake. How it had slithered indoors was a mystery, but on Anna's insistence (perhaps there was a nest of them under the house?) I'd closed every door and window against more invading wildlife.

The bedroom door and door-frame were so swollen with damp that I had to body-slam the door with my shoulder to shut it. I'd also closed the sliding glass door leading into the dripping tangle of bougainvillea, palms, camphor laurels, ferns, vines, lantana, cane toads, water dragons, brush turkeys, bats, owls, spiders and, obviously, snakes, that surrounded our lives this January night in the rainforest hinterland of northern New South Wales.

Storm-blown bougainvillea petals were streaming down the windows like gouts of blood. I turned off the light so we couldn't see them, and then the humid room was dark as well as stifling.

'Again,' my daughter ordered, adjusting her grip. Blueberry Hill was one of the four numbers in my lullaby repertoire. For the others – Summertime, Blue Skies and Sentimental Journey – songs still to be rendered this turbulent night, my normal voice would suffice.

I started over. 'Ah found ma thrill . . .' If only she'd fall asleep so I could open the window. We'd been awake since two a.m. I'd thrown the dead snake out into the bushes. We'd drunk soothing warm milk and eaten toast and plum jam in the kitchen while I tried to get her mind off the snake.

As a going-to-bed or long-car-journey diversion she liked to enviously count the excessive number of pets of her school-friend Gemma Frith. So once more we counted Gemma Frith's animals: forty-three, if you included ducks. As usual, Anna (six pets only) said, 'Don't you think that's too many? I don't think people should be allowed to have more than thirty-seven.' I agreed: 'That's plenty.' Now we were back in bed, having trouble falling asleep.

While I was trying to kill the snake, it had tried a desperate ruse. In one quick movement it shed its skin. The skin flew off in a single life-sized piece, landed beside the real squirming snake and wriggled alongside it, like a twin. This was nature's trick to confuse the enemy, and it worked. Then – a final defence – the real dying snake suddenly exuded a terrible acrid smell. It stank as if it had been rotting in the sun for a week. I felt a guilty nausea. I couldn't get this cadaver smell out of my sinuses.

I wasn't focussed on Blueberry Hill but I could have sung it in my sleep. Even as I lay twisted on my side, holding hands and singing The wind in the willow played/Its sweet melodee/But all of those vows you made/Were never to beee, my mind was racing backwards and forwards from the snake. My thoughts were scattering even more wildly than was customary in my pre-dawn decline of morale. Eventually they stopped and settled around an icy realisation. As of yesterday I was old. My step-mother and last surviving aunt and uncle had just died within weeks of each other (each death a heavier emotional blow than I expected) and I was now the oldest person on each side of the family.

I was shocked by the realisation. Admittedly, I was no longer young (I could see that was probably going too far), but neither was I old. I was barely middle-aged. All the parts, except for close vision and lower back, still worked well enough. I was youngish.

Along with cheery birthday commiserations from my brother Bill and sister Jan, eternally five and ten years younger, a letter had arrived right on cue from my insurance company. AMP Life crisply pointed out that my particular life policy had expired that very day. For obvious reasons, including seeing the words expire and life in close conjunction, this came as a blow.

Until yesterday, if any misfortune from disablement to death had occurred, my loved ones were all covered. It was an expensive policy, chosen because I'd been self-employed for twenty years, since leaving journalism to write fiction, before the days of compulsory superannuation; also because of the financial risks inherent in writing literary fiction, the second-least lucrative genre (poetry wins, hands down) in an ill-rewarded industry, in a lightly populated country of chiefly non-fiction readers.

And because, highly unusually for a writer (or anyone these days), I'd had seven children – the youngest two of whom were still at school.

A marriage break-up out of the blue had walloped me. I no longer owned a house, and it seemed unlikely I ever would again. I was also a recent arrival in a regional town of hierarchical habits and an obsession with residential longevity. My old friends and adult children, however, all lived in the cities. So, I presumed, did any potential female partner.

I envisioned a future as a melanoma-dappled pensioner in a one-room flat above the Lennox Head fish shop. If I got lucky, maybe while beach-combing, I'd meet a dolphin-tattooed old hippie chick – Frangipani Blossom or Zenith Sunbeam: someone in the colonic irrigation or tantric trades. Unless fortune struck in an improbably immediate and imaginative way, that was me in ten years. Dead or alive, I was up the proverbial creek which, thanks to this endless rain, was currently in flood. Woe was me.

My literary agent had recently asked me, 'Where do you want to be in ten years?' Well, at three a.m. that got me worrying. At that hour who mulls over their successes? 'You should have had me knocked off last week,' I remarked on my birthday to the woman who until two years before had been my partner for twenty-five years.

'Don't even think it,' she said. 'Don't send such thoughts out into the cosmos.' With New Age breeziness, she suggested a financial plan for me. I should write a letter to the angels, asking politely for riches. I should state the exact amount I needed and leave the request on the bookshelf above my work desk where the angels would be sure to see it.

'Should I include my ABN and bank details?' I wondered.

'Treat this with due respect,' she said.

This monsoonal night the cosmos was receiving all sorts of wildly depressing data from me. Self-pity. Bitterness. Sorrow. A longing for intimacy and an affectionate female touch. Two years was a long time between drinks. Granted, there was one non-related female who cared deeply about me. I was always on her mind; indeed, she was obsessed with me. Unfortunately she was a stalker.

She was a self-described psychic who'd taken to writing me devoted spidery epistles in red biro on the back of old Christmas cards. She wrote that she had regular visions of me in supermarkets 'buying tinned goods and looking pale.' How she longed for the day when we could meet 'for our mutual benefit and the consumption of fresh fruit'. She suggested her place on alternate Thursdays, when she was 'spiritually unencumbered'.

I like fruit well enough, and mutual benefits as well, and I was quite prepared to be unencumbered on Thursdays. But as my spiritual stalker had neglected to include her name, address or phone number, I guess she thought I was psychic too.

To be frank, ever since a startling moment on a certain early autumn day two years earlier, I'd been unreceptive to anything or anyone spiritual, mystical, New Age, alternative, counter-cultural, hippie, zodiacal or even standard-issue North Coast conventionally unconventional. The day before this pivotal couple of minutes I'd returned home from Writers' Week at the Adelaide Festival, Australian literature's oldest and biggest celebration, vaguely hungover from the round of publishers' parties and still chuffed at having been invited to deliver the opening address.

I'd had a quick swim in the surf, eaten dinner, made homecoming love with my wife, and gone to sleep. Next day, Monday, 13 March, I returned to the work desk – my self-satisfaction ebbing back to its normal level of vague anxiety – when something made me enter the marital bedroom and open the bedside drawer on her side of the bed. Something made me. Why? In twenty-five years I'd never felt the need to do so. And in the drawer was a handsomely bound, professionally authored, multi-paged horoscope.

This didn't seem such an unusual discovery. She was into astrology. I opened the book, which was headed His Stars: Your Partner's Horoscope. How sweet of her to get my horoscope done professionally, I thought, flipping through the swirls of charts which pointed out my sense of humour, love of family, even my love of the outdoors. Despite my distinct reservations about astrology, a topic I'd been known to mock, I had to admit the astrologer had me pretty accurately pinned down. Except in the final sentence: 'To sum up: your partner is intriguingly unconventional for a Pisces!' Pisces? I'm a Capricorn.

. . .

She'd already rented a white cottage on the top of the nearest hill, and she moved out of home immediately. The cottage (which to her annoyance, I would refer to bitterly as 'the love shack') was starkly visible from the veranda, the yard and most rooms of our house. Although he would nose it deep into the shrubbery, so was the Piscean's red Mercedes.

Married life, family life, imaginative working life – life as I'd known it – jolted to a halt. There was an expression used of politicians that came to mind: rooster one minute, feather-duster the next. The date 13 March, 13 March rang in my mind now as the storm raged in the night and my sense of self – how pathetic and stupid was I? – was again fading by the second. Where was my life, my career going? (The career: the last card in the depressive's pack.) In my recently acquired daze, where was I going? This was not the me I was used to. Who was this person?

Only the week before, a woman in a Land-Rover with Queensland licence plates had stopped me in the Woolworths car park to seek directions to the Big Prawn fish and chip shop on the Pacific Highway at Ballina. Apparently she had trouble finding a bright pink, six-by-nine metre concrete-and-fibreglass prawn which towered over Australia's main highway. She beckoned me to the car window and asked, 'Do you speak English?'

That threw me. Now I looked foreign? 'Yes – I – speak – English,' I enunciated. I gave directions to the Big Prawn very crisply and grammatically. I wanted my English to be impeccable. This Queenslander with unsophisticated dining habits should be in no doubt about me or my antecedents. The woman gave me a strange look, thanked me briskly, quickly wound up the car window, and accelerated away.

Now I lay twisted up in the humidity, the stink of dying snake in my nostrils, imitating an old New Orleans entertainer. This night of the soul was growing much darker than the usual abyss. Could this be karma? In the past I'd left women for other women. I, too, had made children unhappy.

Psychologists say you can't miss a life stage; having missed my wild-oats period by marrying at eighteen, I'd sowed a few oats in my thirties. But that was yesteryear. And not during the marriage.

Creatively, I was also tussling with something Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Point Omega: 'The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever. The true life takes place when we're alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly self-aware, the sub-microscopic moments.'

Fair enough. At the moment I was certainly 'lost in memory' all day long and 'dreamingly self-aware' of 'sub-microscopic moments'. But I found it hard to set any of these moments down – or anything else either – without lapsing into maudlin self-pity. The critic in me, the person who prided himself on his literary bullshit detector, was having trouble with imaginative objectivity.

Then, then, as often happens – and how grateful I am for this familiar habit – just when worry and longing and guilt could have swept me into a hellish vortex, a thought struck. Not an epiphany exactly, but definitely the leap of insight when an idea suggests itself. I was actually galvanised by melancholy. I stood aside and saw the snake episode and its anxious aftermath, this concurrence of fear and family-defence and sadness, from a writerly distance.

I saw the ridiculousness in the situation: the snake, the tempest, the self-absorption, the high anxiety level, the Fats Domino voice, and I felt oddly calmed. My daughter was finally asleep. Her grip relaxed, her hair and breath brushed my cheek, love – overwhelming, indescribable love – enveloped me and, for the moment, I was saved.

. . .

Over the next few days I relate the snake story over and over. Try stopping me. There's no credit coming from the country folk, however. They grumble, 'Sounds like a whip snake to me.' (Bite venomous but not fatal.) Or, 'I bet it was a tree snake.' (Harmless.) Even, 'A brown snake? Are you sure? That sounds unlikely.' But city friends all ooh and ahh and regard me as intrepid, the women among them shaking their heads in awe. One woman, unable to bear the ferocious excitement engendered by my re-enactment, even puts her hands over her ears and makes that irritating la-la-la noise.

The story so impresses them that I have no need to embellish it. For the purposes of the narrative I backtrack an hour before Blueberry Hill, before the toast and warm milk and the tightly sealed doors and windows. Suddenly, I relate, I'm woken at 2 a.m. by a heavier than usual cloudburst thundering on the roof. Padding to the bathroom through the living room, I spot the snake wriggling across the bare floor between my daughter's bedroom and mine.

A snake! The slick floor is hampering its progress. It's unsure which way to go. On the floor-boards it stands out in sharp relief: a young brown snake, a bit longer than my forearm. Apart from being born with enough venom to kill a cart-horse, brown snakes are notoriously aggressive at any age or length. And now it's trying to crawl into her doll-house.

For a moment I stand there stupefied. I'm hardly snake-proofed. I'm barefoot, of course, and wearing only underpants. The snake is nosing into the doll-house's second floor. Its coils are tipping over tiny tables and chairs and cupboards and people: little plastic mummies and daddies and children. This is overdoing the imagery. It's like a Pedro Almodovar film about marriage breakdown.

My mind is whirling. At two o'clock in the morning I can't phone a wildlife rescuer, one of those noble volunteers who care for the region's inappropriately situated wildlife. In this greener-than-green area, snakes and goannas have greater status than horses or dogs, and the signs at my nearest beach saying Do Not Molest the Sharks are regularly souvenired by disbelieving tourists. However, I'm not totally immune to the local environmental ethos that a poisonous snake is a beautiful creature: forget its venomous reputation, just stand still, don't disturb it and it will silently vanish.

But I don't want this snake to silently vanish. My biggest fear is that the snake will silently vanish. I don't want it slithering off into my daughter's bedroom, or my teenage son's room upstairs, or disappearing into the melange of toys and clothes and sofa cushions. I don't want it to surprise us, reappearing at a time of its choosing to bite the children. Or, indeed, to poison Life-Policy-Expired-Only-Yesterday me.

I'm also species-territorial. People Inside – Wildlife Outside. Especially brown snakes that can kill you. And a brown snake is inside the house. And inside the doll-house. I can't wait until wildlife-rescue business hours. I'm going to have to deal with this.

How? I don't have one of those wire hooks that local snake handlers flourish so casually. I'm also lacking snake-killing weaponry. Somewhere in the monsoonal downpour outdoors, in the red mud and dripping shrubbery, is a shovel. There are grass clippers and tree trimmers. There is an axe, and a mattock with a split handle, and various bricks and heavy rocks. The axe would be best. But even if the snake waits patiently for me to find the axe, I can hardly chop up the living room.

All these thoughts flick by much more quickly than their retelling. Now I run the contents of the kitchen cutlery drawer through my mind. I decide that the only utensil in the house approaching a suitable weapon is a barbecue tool for turning steak and sausages and scraping fat off the grill of the Beefmaster.

When I race to fetch the barbecue spatula, the snake finds the doll-house too cramped, slithers toward the sofa and endeavours to creep under it. This makes my task a fraction less dangerous. I'm able to kneel on the sofa so the padded armrest is between me and the snake – as long as it doesn't rear up.

I carefully bend down, and then thrust the leading edge of the spatula down hard onto the snake's neck. I hold on, and press down, and keep holding on. There is a lot of thrashing.

Amid the thrashing and shedding and cadaver-stink, and my growing nausea and fear of the snake, Anna wakes up. Sleepy and fuzzy-haired, she pads past me to the toilet, comes back, passes by the spatula and snake activity again, then turns from the bedroom door and asks, with a frown, 'Why are you kneeling on the couch with your bum in the air?' She is carrying a teddy bear with a concertina stomach that plays Brahms' Lullaby when you stretch the bear out to its full length. She does so.

I'm nonchalant. 'I'm just getting rid of a snake. Why don't you pop into my bed and turn the light on.'

The barbecue spatula isn't as sharp, weighty or deadly as I'd hoped. I have to press down for a long while – years, decades, it seems – as the snake whips about. My right side is stiff and cramping but if I relax for a second the enraged and desperate snake will lurch up and bite me. It takes about twenty minutes to die. As the requiem of Brahms' Lullaby issues impatiently from a bear's belly in the bedroom, it seems much longer than that.

. . .

The snake episode is a turning point. It's not an Aust Lit snake. It's not the Snake of Capitalist Greed of Henry Lawson's poetry, or hardly even the Snake of the Threat of Female Otherness of Lawson's The Drover's Wife and The Bush Undertaker. If anything, it's the Snake of Male Dazedness and Foggy Indecision.

At least I've acted, taken control of events. And in the way of north-coast weather patterns, the cyclone storm cell spins out into the South Pacific by morning. Sun glistens on the wet palms and, one by one, the bougainvillea blood-gouts on the window panes dry and blow away in the breeze. The sky, the foliage and the fauna appear sharply etched and the whole passage of the day seems more optimistic.

I force myself to function. I start by writing a regular column for The Age newspaper. I manage to concentrate and narrow my focus by writing the column in longhand and then transcribing it onto the computer. Once I've accomplished that I find the creative and deadline discipline involved is hugely helpful. After three columns, I'm able to give up the handwriting and return to the laptop. I knuckle down further and write a couple of short stories. I write more stories. They start coming reasonably easily. I write a dozen of them, and submit them for publication, four of them to Meanjin magazine. (Frank Moorhouse says Meanjin is Aboriginal for 'Rejected by the New Yorker' but at this point their acceptance of the stories gives me a huge lift.) Then I publish them all in a collection, The Rip. The title says it all.

I also begin seeing women. Seeing is a strange euphemism for dating; I don't really see them at all. Or really feel them, or hear them, for that matter. I'm pleased to meet attractive new women (why not?), and happy in their intimate company (how pleasant) but only vaguely disappointed when we break up (too bad). If I were to estimate my capacity to wholeheartedly love anyone other than my children (for whom my love is prodigious), or my ability to create another large work of the imagination, a big novel like The Drowner, I'd put it at around fifty per cent. Nevertheless, this is an improvement.

Time passes, time passes, and I find myself absorbed by the countryside, the elements, the exotic flora and fauna of the northern rainforest. Several times a day I check the weather radar online; then I stand outside and marvel at the clouds building up just as they are on the screen. I can stare for hours at brush turkeys nesting in the shrubbery and water-dragons sunbaking on the septic tank. One day there is a strong tsunami warning following an earthquake out in the Pacific; I stand on a cliff and wait at the appointed time of impact for the engulfing wave. Once my children are on high ground I relish the idea. Go on, sweep everything away. Nothing happens.

To use up the constant adrenaline surges of anxiety, I impulsively take long, fast walks along the beach and country lanes. Snakes rustle away from me; a nervy nesting swamp-hen darts out of Emigrant Creek and bites my shin. I swim and gym for the same adrenaline reason (I can't stop myself frenetically exercising), and quickly lose seven kilos without dieting. Waiting for my daughter at the school gate, tension momentarily flattened by lifting weights, I'm strangely, calmly, impressed by the smell of camphor laurels, the way palm fronds bisect the sky, and the high altitude attained by soaring pelicans. My new columns and stories throng with lizards and swamp-hens and silky-oaks and palm trees and relationship breakups. Obviously, I'm not yet out of the woods.

Those friends close to me professionally, my publisher, Julie Gibbs, and my agent, Fiona Inglis, start asking, 'What's next?'

Good question.

ISBN: 9780670893478
ISBN-10: 0670893471
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 304
Published: 26th September 2012
Dimensions (cm): 23.0 x 15.5  x 2.2
Weight (kg): 23.0
Edition Number: 1