When the World Was Soft, by Paul Duffy
Hennessy New Irish Writing: ‘The strange shape of tragedy’ in the blinding Western Australia sun
The beginning was we started to die: A young woman from Doolin dragged below the surf and backwards through the undercurrents near Prevelly Beach by what they suppose was a great white. A Clondalkin teenager, tanked on amphetamines, and hammer in hand, stabbed in a Perth suburb in the small hours, intervening in a quarrel that was not his own. Closer to us, a Dunboyne man lost control of his Bugatti at an innocent-seeming junction on the outskirts of our closest mining town. And all our hearts broke when the young lad from Donegal was lost, the scaffolding collapsing into that lonely lukewarm stretch of sea near Hedland. It was spoken in whispers in the camp that the divers found him, pinned down at the bottom, under the wreckage and a pod of dolphins nosing around the body, doing their best to raise him. We were hit with sadness, and a certain vulnerability.
It amounted to simple statistics. Western Australia had a population of 2.6 million. Tens of thousands of Irish had flooded in over the previous three years. We made up a visible percentage of the people in the state. Deaths were inevitable. But still, I read signs. It was the accident with the Rosscarbery girls that hit us hardest. They lost control of their van coming through Cathedral Gorge one long hot Sunday. We knew them well from the town cafe. Susie, Ciara and Liz out doing the regional work towards a second-year visa application, they brought some colour to the monochrome redness. Red earth, red dust, sun-red mining faces with red-rimmed eyes jutting from red mining shirts. The town was hushed with it. The strange shape of tragedy in the clear ring of sunshine. Incongruous. And the bush refused to be sombre.
Myself and Basil tried to reconstruct their journey. We imagined it out during smoko, sitting in the willowy shade of a bloodwood tree, each in a rut scraped into the scalding scree, arses worried into the dust with our backs to the bark. Basil Eades. He was picking long useless fibres from a wattle branch, his wide black fingers matt and dusty. The rest of the survey team had folded out the canvas chairs back up the track in the boxy shadow of our Land Cruiser. We had another square kilometre to cover before we could pack up and take the rough track back towards the exploration camp.
Myself and Basil had walked to a vantage point to plan out the next leg of the survey. Down below us the landscape descended into an immense, flat valley floor. A haze of dust on the western horizon marked Mirabel Mine. The repeater towers on the Packsaddle range and the odd flash of a truck fuselage glinting from where we knew the Great Northern Highway ran were the only signs of the manmade.
This is the route they would have taken back from Port Hedland, on the coast, a good 600km to the north. It was something to punctuate the month, a spin to the sea. A six-hour drive with nothing but Auski roadhouse to break it up. No towns, no villages, no roadside cafes. In the same time you could cross Ireland twice and pass through 40 towns.
In the Pilbara, however, it was all expanses of red earth, granite domes, ironstone ridges and mining tenements. It is a landscape that requires repetition in order to recognise its component parts. With time the features dislodge themselves from the suffocating sense of the empty, and the true beauty and variety of the place unveils itself. But it takes months of looking.
On leaving the coast they would have passed flat dead countries of silt for miles and miles. Low scrubby poverty bush and the occasional stately desert walnut on the salt flats, pigface creeping its pink flower where improbable aquifers bleed along beneath the surface. Then, after 200km, granite domes begin to raise their broad, humped backs from the coarse pindan sand, their sun-baked crusts exfoliating through the centuries, presaging geologies to come. Blue-grey dolerite extrusions appear in places as the route progresses south, and a sparse cover of yellow flowering acacia bush and red bottlebrush run along the dry creek beds. Then a horizon of jagged prows melts into view. The familiar red and black ridges of the Hamersley Plateau. Raw ironstone mostly, with massifs of conglomerate dotted with white-trunked snappy gum. An hour of climbing switchbacks and flooring it past enormous road trains would have brought them close to town towards midday. The heat hammering. The landscape exhausting. The glare blinding.
Passing through Cathedral Gorge, they were on the home straight. Familiar territory and the thought of a cold beer in an air-conditioned bar would have put a salve on the unremitting emptiness. And then the event: a lapse in concentration, a blown-out tyre, a camel on the road. Something. And the van spilled over the bank, plunging into a broken ravine.
That was our conclusion in the shade with the bush flies crowding us. I confided that I felt helpless about it. Did not know what to say to their friends on the flight back to Perth. Basil, however, had his religion. There were answers to be found there.
“Billy Madigan,” he said finally, after a slow age of recalling it from his memory. “A great man. His parish is down in Balcatta.”
The consonants of his native tongue alive and well in his English. Basil had spoken of him before, an Irish priest. I was ignorant of what particular brand of church Basil subscribed to, but I knew it involved guitar playing and singing. I took the name and address he wheedled on to a scrap of paper.
“I’ll look him up,” I said disingenuously, figuring Basil didn’t know about the 100,000 of us and was doing me a good turn, putting me in touch with a countryman.
Basil wasn’t a pure convert all the same. His religion went only so far. It was his salvation for sure, but his Christianity was tempered by other truths he had grown up with. He was full of stories of the gorges and creeks and springs. I had it from him that when the earth rose from the sea, and before the sun had baked it hard, the ground was like mud. Serpents and giants and totems and sorcerous Dreamtime beings furrowed out and forked up and bellied valleys into the featureless mudscape. I thought to tell him of Black Pig’s Dyke back home but resisted, feeling the tripwire of some subtle caution. Hard to talk of those massive prehistoric earthworks and the legends of the huge boar nuzzling them out across the landscape without consigning Basil’s beliefs to the same slag pile of the defunct and the quaint.
The same warning throb restrained me the day he told me he used to live down in Perth. I caught myself in time, before I leaped on that staple of bush conversation. Putting names on places and zeroing in to a point in common. South African medics, Kiwi geologists, Tassie engineers, Pommie surveyors, French ethnographers, etc.
“Where ya stayin’?” one would say.
“Ah, Nedlands? I’m across the narrows in Como,” would be a typical response. Then you would talk about the fishing off the wharf, or the pub with the pressed copper ceilings or the best Thai restaurant on the strip. Such dreaming of stepping off the plane into civilisation at the end of your swing helped the weeks pass. This time with Basil, I halted, on the edge of the question. Climbed back down off it and settled into a silence. He broke it a good three minutes later.
“On the grog,” he said.
I answered with a slow meaningful drive of air out of my nostrils. To let him know I understood the gravity of it. Understood that on the grog meant on the foreshore. On the benches. On Barrack Street spread out on the baking sidewalk, soles of feet on show scratching underneath a dirty bandage. Meant on the handouts, on the accident and emergency ward, on the rough end of a beating. Meant on my right side as I took a wide berth of a Saturday morning on the shopping stretch.
“Lost three years to that place,” he said. He followed with a statement I had heard in various forms from Aboriginal lads from many different peoples and language groups from desert to karri forest.
“The city is no good for a Blackfella. Too big. Too tall,” he said, looking out ahead where aeons had stripped and restripped and exfoliated the land mass to a red level expanse.
“I went on one a them ebalatars once,” he said, smiling.
I let that sink in. The contortion of his pronunciation masking the meaning for me. The hard copper wire of his vocal cords struck with the metal coin of his tongue, the consonants ringing.
“Yeah,” he said, then laughed, a high laugh that might have been taken as feminine back home. Elevator, I deciphered in the interim.
“How was it?”
“It wasn’t for me.”
There is a process of “going bush”. Where the two weeks “on” begin to become the reality while the five days “off” in Perth increasingly lose substance. Families drift in this way. Partners can’t relate. For the survey team, out in the wilds, away from even the remote community of the mine site, the process was accelerated. The headspace whilst walking transects reflective of the surrounding vastness. My growing love of, and comfort with, the outback had its own counterpoint. A growing neurosis fixating on the fatal. Our dead. Everything held its dangers.
Skin cancer, with the sun reaching fingers into my skin and tampering on a cellular level.
Mesothelioma from the old asbestos mines in the ranges. Terror lurked in every cave we visited, kicking up choking billows of dust.
Silicosis from the airborne grit, coating everything, obeying minute impulses of gravity or magnetic forces as it fanned across every available surface.
Ross River virus squatting with fatal intent in the gut of any given mosquito.
The Pilbara death adder, coiled invisible on the scree – strong of fang and quick to strike.
Redbacks, whitetips, etc, etc.
On top of this we came upon Witenoom one day, the village they had scrubbed off the maps. Nineteen-seventies prefab houses dotted around the open asbestos mines. Huge pillowy piles of tailings dust still seeding the air.
And beneath all of these dangers, as we traversed areas of untrammelled beauty, lurked the ever-present knowledge that the endgame to our work was the determined destruction of mountains and valleys. Of ethnographic landscapes. Of landmarks that had borne names for tens of thousands of years. Destined to become open pits that could swallow parishes. Blast after blast detonating dull thuds in the distance and the resultant clouds rising in red warning. It was hard to not take the apocalyptic view.
I did not heed the signs but kept on. Fatalistic. In Northbridge after a long, hot, dusty swing in ironstone country I poured pale ale on to a thirst that was not exactly physical. After a skinful and a round of loud, pointless commotion I took a glass bottle to the throat. A feeling I do not care to document. Staggering back up to the pub with a hand clamped to my neck, the warm slug of liquid down my fingers could only feel inevitable.
A bouncer found me, put me prone on the pavement. The pub emptied to see the spectacle, and from the crowd the shape of a woman in a floral dress. She put her hands on the wound with merciless pressure, hushing all the while. Without a second of hesitation. Keeping me anchored. Fixing a fallen strand behind her ear; blond hair blood red.
I forsook the Irish in the end, like Peter himself before the cock crowed. The debacle of them wheeling me into emergency and me taking drama to new heights, spouting not a single word that wasn’t finely formed French. Just to distinguish myself from the masses of sun-seared young Paddies howling at the sky and flinging fistfuls of confused energy into all and sundry on the street corners of Northbridge every night of the week.
Strangers worked miracles on me. Put their hands into me as I drowned in anaesthetics. Pulled me back from headlines and statistics and heart-rent family and head-shaking school friends and surprised acquaintances and a small sodality of tears around a table in a remote wet mess mine site. Faces I will never know, working on the bulk of my flesh, splicing my shredded jugular back together. Giving me the gift of home.
Before all that. When I was on the flat of my back, tasting the wrong side of invincible. That haemoglobin suck. Not sweet but salt. Iron. Red as rust and thick in the throat. A heavy metal, I’m informed. That comes from one place only. The collapsing core of a supernova. And I do believe it was reluctant to leave me. Its warmth gasping useless. Into the slightly less warm night. But blood slugged on. Osmosis or whatever, seduced by the closest vacuum. The transfusion soaking into the stitching of her summer dress as she applied pressure for all she was worth. The strange, unknown constellations fixed in the black beyond her ear. The swirling milt of the universe. And the upside-down moon read as inalterable truth. Told me how far away they all were. Lover mother father brother. Mild thoughts of passing. Of them all coming together in conclave. Voices raked raw and playing the game of holding each other up, buckling and strengthening in turn. In the warmth I remembered leaving her in the airport. Breaking the grip and coming back again and again, kissing and looking into each other’s faces.
The old “I’ll be back within the year”. Bat wings of despair spreading in my lungs. The precipice of separation. We had stepped over.
Blood slugged on, diluting the concrete, threatening to suck me down into it. A threshold I almost passed over.
There was something I did share with Basil without restraint, without censure. I told him of the bog bodies. Brown stained, noble and outlandish, as if the collective yearning dreams of centuries of melancholic Irish had gone to seed in the earth, growing into sleeping forms. Basil was attentive, took it all in. He asked a few questions and considered the information. The brown wastes of midland Irish bogs slowly transposing on to the red expanse before us. Shortening the distance. His logic was unavoidable.
“I see,” he said in the end, his tongue twisting sideways and shushing out the sound. He didn’t need say more. But he saw it through, stating the obvious.
“Them men got there,” he said, his fingers whispering shapes across the dirt, “ . . . when the world was soft.”
Paul Duffy, a Dubliner who has lived in the west of Ireland, the south of France and Western Australia, won the Over the Edge new writer of the year award in 2015 for his story Redolence. He lives with his family in Wicklow, where he works as an archaeologist