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Book extract: Stephen Orr's Datsunland

Books & Poetry

Adelaide author Stephen Orr's latest book, Datsunland, comprises a selection of short stories – many with a strong South Australian connection – that are "happy to let you in, but not out".

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The story extracted below features a child who discovers his identity in a strange photograph hidden in his parents’ room. Others tell of an Indian doctor arriving in the outback to discover an “uncomfortable truth” about the Australian dream, a family trying to get their son’s name removed from a World War I cowards’ list, and a man’s attachment to a long-deserted drive-in.

“In Datsunland, his characters are outsiders peering into worlds they don’t recognise, or understand,” says Wakefield Press, which will publish the book next month.

Orr is the author of six previous novels, including Time’s Long Ruin (based loosely around the disappearance of the Beaumont children) and The Hands, both of which were longlisted for the 2016 Mile Franklin Literary Award.

_______________________________

The Photographer’s Son

On from Barmera, towards Cobdogla. All the way round Wachtels Lagoon to Moorook, then half-way to Loxton. Country that had been over-grazed, stripped of vegetation, the soil left to wash and blow away, exposing limestone in honeycomb sheets that could be cut (and had been) to make blocks for building. Then south along the Murray, the small ghost-filled inlets with their marshes and shouldn’t-have-been-planted willow trees. Along Alcott Road (keep going, keep going, all the way to the water) to the farm that no one knew about, or visited.

Hugh Heyward had started it. He’d taken his wife, Sarah, and set off from Adelaide. Boarded a riverboat at Tailem Bend and journeyed all the way to his block on the Murray. Jumped off the boat, onto the shore, and held his arms out for his wife. The second mate had lifted her, deposited her, but Hugh had underestimated her weight and dropped her in the water. They’d surveyed their sixty acres. Hugh had said, ‘Nice country’ (although he wasn’t really sure of this). They’d walked up the bank, across sandy flats into thick scrub. Hugh had said, ‘How about we build the house here?’ Sarah had replied, ‘No, higher. I don’t want to be flooded out.’

Sixty years had passed and the house was still there. Sarah had named it ‘Querelle’, despite not knowing what it meant. She’d made Hugh carve a sign on a piece of redwood. He’d hauled every stone from Cobby on the back of a cart, dumped it on the clearing, fitted it, laid it, pointed it.

Now, Hugh and Sarah were dead. But their son, Des, was still running things. He had fruit trees, mainly, and some vines. Cattle.

A flock of sheep and a few goats. In fact, he hadn’t really worked out where the good money was, so he’d hedged his bets. He was still searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Des was a practical man, but not overly ambitious. He had no desire to make millions, to tame the land (that always seemed to be taming him) or move beyond the smell of burnt bread and beeswax candles at Querelle.

Des was out chopping wood. His wife, Lucy, was in town, organising men for the harvest. His only son, Adrian, was standing on the porch of the house, looking out across the bloated river that crawled towards the sea. The boy was eight, but told people he was nine, ten, even, depending on who he needed to impress. He was short for his age, and his head always drooped like the golliwog his aunt had bought him – as though it was too heavy, or perhaps just because he couldn’t be bothered holding it up.

Adrian had finished spreading the hay for the sheep. He’d finished burying the latest lamb. Preparing the fire. There were other jobs but he wasn’t in the mood. He could do them, and Des would probably praise him, but he wasn’t interested – didn’t feel the need for his father’s hand through his hair.

He went into the house, and his parents’ bedroom. Climbed onto their bed and reached on top of their wardrobe. The photo box was heavy and he overbalanced and fell back onto the mattress. Some of the photos spilled onto the quilt. He gathered them and went into his room. After closing his door, he sat on his bed and started removing photos from the box. There were a few of him: a portrait taken in Renmark, his hair cut and combed back over his ears; his mother’s sisters and brothers; postcards from his parents’ honeymoon in the Blue Mountains; even some old newspaper clippings for agricultural implements his father had planned on buying.

Then, his favourite: a formal photo of Hugh and Sarah, kneeling on the lounge room floor of Querelle. They were both dressed formally, Sarah in a black dress that reached below her ankles, Hugh in a rough suit he kept for Sunday service, funerals and trips to town to discuss the mortgage. There was a girl lying between them. Adrian wasn’t sure, but he guessed she was nineteen or twenty, perhaps a bit older, judging from her sun-baked face. She was also wearing a good dress. Pearls. Her hair was done up in a bun. Like Hugh and Sarah, she was looking at the camera, but he couldn’t see much in her eyes.

‘Adrian!’

He heard his dad in the kitchen. Froze. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, much. There was no rule against looking at the photos, but sometimes, when his mum got them out at night, and got a bit teary, his dad would gather them and storm out of the room and say to her, ‘Just leave them. Doesn’t do no one no good.’

‘Adrian!’

Datsunland-book-cover---Stephen-OrrHe heard footsteps in the hallway. Realised there was no point trying to hide the photos; the little bits of life he’d known, or heard about, forgotten, imagined. The dead people. The places other people had gone.

‘What you up to?’ Des asked, opening the door and coming into his room.

He didn’t reply.

‘The family jewels, eh?’ He sat down on his son’s bed. Picked up a photo, smiled, and threw it back down.

‘I finished everything,’ Adrian said.
‘Good boy.’
Adrian studied the bristles on his father’s face, the scars on his neck, the hairs poking from his nose. Smelled the eucalyptus and cow shit, the black mud on the bottom of his shoes.

Des took the photo from his son’s fingers. He looked at his father, and mum, and the girl.

‘Who was she?’ Adrian asked.

‘I’ve told you, haven’t I?’

Adrian didn’t reply. It seemed that would be disrespectful – like saying his father was forgetful, or hiding something.

‘No? Well …’

Maybe she was a family secret, Adrian thought. A retard. Like the ones in the special school in Berri. The boys and girls who sat on the porch watching him walk by in his Sunday suit. Maybe she was a relative who’d fallen pregnant and been sent to Querelle.

‘My sister,’ Des said.

He looked at him, confused. ‘But you don’t have a sister.’

‘I don’t, but I did.’

He reclaimed the photo. ‘Your sister?’ There was no way this could be his aunt. He’d never seen, heard or been told stories about her. And stories, he already knew, were the way people proved something was true. If you hadn’t done something funny or dumb or stupid, it was like you’d never existed.

‘Look closely,’ Des said to him. He studied the girl.

‘See, she’s dead,’ his father said.

‘No …’

‘Yep. That’s a memento mori.’

He looked up.

‘A photo people used to have taken so they could remember someone.’

Adrian thought about this. It made sense. You could remember a face for a month, a year perhaps, but eventually you always forgot what people looked like. The boy who’d drowned at Pyap, for instance. Who’d been in his class. Blond, and a round face, but he couldn’t see him to think of him.

‘Elizabeth died when she was nineteen. No one never knew what of, cos she was just buried.’ His father was remembering. ‘See, the tallboy, the table, that’s our dining room.’

Adrian could even see their mirror, covered, and the old organ he’d never heard played.

‘So, this is what happened. Of course, I wasn’t around at the time. I was only told later. She got some infection, and took to bed, and sweated and tossed and turned for days. And then one morning your grandma went in and she was dead.’

Adrian kept studying the photo. ‘Was she upset?’

‘You would be, wouldn’t yer? But as I said, I wasn’t there. Anyway, after they dealt with the shock, Hugh said, We ain’t got no picture, have we? Sarah thought, and said, No.’

He noticed how Elizabeth’s hands had been arranged, each finger woven like his mother’s crochet. It was like she was praying.

‘Hugh said, I’ll drive to town and fetch the photographer. He got dressed and went out to the stable, but had forgotten the horse had slipped a shoe. So he just turned and started walking – out the front gate, towards Barmera.’

‘He walked all that way?’

‘It was a stinker. He walked and walked. No one went past to offer a lift. He slept under a tree on the first night, then walked the next day, then slept in a hay shed the next night – then he got to town.’

Adrian had never heard this story. He wondered whether his dad was just making it up, but knew (from his face) that this wasn’t so. Maybe it was something he thought he was ready to hear; maybe he’d never got around to telling him. Still, this was unlikely. This was a house full of stories: deaths, lost babies, drownings, people with their arms caught in mangles.

‘Meanwhile, Sarah was left with Elizabeth,’ Des said. ‘She wasn’t sure how long Hugh would take, so she stripped her off and put her in the bath and covered her with water. Then she just sat beside her … holding her hand perhaps.’

He knew his father was starting to improvise. There was no way he could know that sort of detail. But he didn’t care. A story was more real than the thing, after all. The thing just happened, but the story you could control. ‘For two days?’ he asked.

‘Two days. So it wasn’t like she was really going to … turn.’

‘Turn over?’

‘You know, start stinkin’.’

Adrian almost smiled. Almost asked, How long would that take then? But wasn’t sure how close his father had been to his sister. ‘Where were you all this time?’

‘I was busy elsewhere.’

‘Where?’

‘Listen. Hugh walks into town and makes straight for the photographer’s rooms. He walks in, and this man, Bernie Padfield his name was, looks at him and says, “How can I help?”’

‘Is this true?’

‘Believe me, it’s true. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t. And you wouldn’t either.’

Now Adrian was confused.

‘Hugh’s pretty messy, he stinks, covered in dust, so Padfield’s a bit curious. Hugh explains about Lizzy, and how they want a photo to remember her, but you know what Padfield says?’

He played along. Knew that questioning was one of his father’s story-telling techniques. ‘No.’

‘He says, “Sorry, no time to be drivin’ all round the country. You can bring her here.” “How am I gonna do that?” Hugh asks. “Sorry,” Padfield says.’

He could tell his father was hitting his straps. By the way he sat forward; raised, and modulated, his voice; spat as he spoke.

‘Hugh exploded. He shouted. “Padfield: You will come with me, sir!” Padfield shouted back: “I will not, sir!”’

Dramatic pause. Adrian knew what was expected. His eyes lit up, he sat forward himself.

‘Then, Hugh picked up a knife from Padfield’s table and held it to his throat. He’d had enough. His daughter was dead! He was tired, thirsty, sore all over. He said: “Sir, you will come with me, and you will take my daughter’s picture.”’

He waited.

‘Know what happened next?’

‘No.’

‘Padfield said no.’

‘No?’

‘Yep. Knife or no knife, he wasn’t going anywhere. So …’

‘What?’

‘Just then, the photographer’s son walked into the room. Hugh felt he had no choice. He sprang forward, took the boy by the arm and held the knife to his throat.’

He was lost in the story.

‘“You will come with me,” Hugh said to the photographer, as the boy just shook and …’

‘Yes?’

‘Wet himself.’

Adrian sat back. ‘How do you know?’

‘Don’t worry. I know. So, Hugh waited with the knife to the boy’s throat as Padfield went out and harnessed his cart, gathered his equipment, and loaded it. Then, Hugh led the boy out and they all got in the cart and set off.’

Adrian knew the drama had to surge and recede, like the river, wetting and drying the roots of big gum trees. But Des also knew that if the horse slows too much it stops.

‘They headed to Querelle. All lined up on the front seat: Padfield, the boy (his throat nicked, and bleeding) and Hugh Heyward. For the first few hours there was silence. But then Hugh started telling them about Lizzy. Her smile, her sense of … lightness, her ear for music, and the way she could make the organ sing like a choir of angels. How she was the light of her parents’ life.’

Adrian realised it was getting dark, and cold, but to stand and light a candle, or start a fire, would ruin everything.

‘The photographer listened to Hugh and, despite the knife, started feeling sorry for him. As the sun started setting, he guessed the farmer was harmless.’

His father had left the room, and another man was telling the story. This man was someone like Dickens, or Twain, or even Kipling. He was the story.

‘Hugh told them everything about Lizzy. How she could tackle the hardest sums, and always get them right, and cook … how she could make old mutton taste …’

Adrian was in the cart, too, sitting, listening.

‘Then, all of a sudden, Hugh stood and threw the knife into the bush. Padfield pulled up. Hugh looked at him and said, “I’m sorry. About all this, and your boy … for scaring him. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t never have hurt no one.” Then he sat down. And Padfield put his hand on his arm and said, “I understood all that. Right from the start. How about I come with you and take your daughter’s picture?”’

Adrian could tell his father had descended, on the verge of tears that were story tears, but real tears. He was slowing, savouring every word, every action, every smile, every second of pathos.

‘Hugh said, No. But Padfield didn’t care. He looked at his son and smiled, and the son agreed – they should take Lizzy’s picture.’

‘He was a good fella, this photographer,’ Adrian said.

‘Yes,’ Des agreed. ‘A decent man. Ones you don’t see so much these days.’ He knew the story had to continue. More than anything, once started, it had to be finished. ‘They stopped for a rest and the photographer fetched his equipment, and set up, and took a photo of Hugh and the boy.’

Des took out his wallet. Produced an old, torn photo Adrian had never seen. He handed it to his son, who studied it. It made sense. It all made sense. Hugh and the photographer’s son stood together against the bush, and the distant river that ran through their lives. There was blood on the boy’s neck and shirt. He looked at his father. Lifted his hand and touched the scars on his neck. ‘You …’

Des smiled. ‘I was gonna tell you …’

‘But … how?’

‘We went home, and Sarah was waiting. They got Lizzy ready with her dress, and her pearls, and Dad, my dad, took the photo.’ Des reclaimed the memento mori and studied it.

Adrian sensed the story had stopped, and something else had begun. My dad … Hugh, or Bernie Padfield? It wasn’t clear to him anymore. ‘I still don’t understand.’

Des was lost. ‘I can still remember, standing watching as they got her ready, adjusting her hands in her lap.’

‘I don’t understand …’

‘Later, we all went out onto the porch for a cup of tea. I went off to play and Dad, Bernie, talked to Hugh. This bit I’ll have to make up.’ He smiled. ‘Bernie said, “Listen, Mr Heyward, I can see you’re a decent man. The thing is, I’ve done you a favour, and you could do one for me.”’

Adrian felt cold. It was almost dark outside. The room was full of shadows. He could barely see his father’s face.

‘“Hugh,” Bernie said, “my wife, she went to Sydney, and she never came back.” Then, I imagine, there would’ve been silence. Then, Bernie would’ve said, “I was wondering if you could watch my son. For a few weeks at most.”’

From a knife at the throat to a favour; threats to something that already resembled friendship, perhaps even love. This is what Bernie Padfield had come to think of Hugh, and Hugh of the photographer.

‘So?’

‘Hugh said yes. What else could he do? The poor man’s wife had run off, with some other man as it turned out.’

‘And he never came back for you?’

‘No.’

Des took the photo of him and his father, Hugh Heyward, standing before the bush, and put it back in his wallet. ‘He never came back. Couple of years later, Dad told me, he heard he’d been stabbed. Maybe by the fella that my mum had run off with, maybe someone else.’

‘And?’

‘I was angry, cos he’d dumped me. But later, I realised he’d gone to get my mum because he loved her. Didn’t mean …’

‘And Pop?’

‘Once he’d heard about the stabbing. Once a year had passed with no word. Then he knew. He was always a practical man, so he said, “No use waitin’, son.” He went to town and signed some papers and that was that.’

Adrian still wasn’t sure if the whole thing wasn’t the most ambitious, grandest story his father had ever invented. But, he concluded, it must be true. And if one bit was true, then it was all true. He guessed that it had taken his father eight years to tell him this, simply because it had taken eight years to tell him. ‘How did you feel?’

Des sighed. ‘Not good … not good. I came back to the porch and … Dad, Bernie, told me what they’d decided. And he left me there. He messed my hair, kissed me, and told me he’d be back soon, and that Mr Heyward was a good man and would look after me. And then he got in his cart and drove off. And that was it.’

Now it was pitch black. They sat in silence.

‘That’s me, the photographer’s son,’ Des said, packing the photos into the box.

Adrian felt happy, and sad, that he was here because of this story, and these people, and their weaknesses, and goodness, and charity. He felt love. A dad was a valuable thing, no matter where you found him, and if his stories went all night, into the dark and cold, you listened. You never moved. Not an inch.

Des was still watching his father drive through the gates at Querelle.

He was still waving. His father didn’t look back. He supposed this was because he was busy planning his trip east. He turned and looked at Hugh, the farmer in the torn and dusty suit. ‘Will you need a hand digging?’ he said.

‘Tomorrow, son.’

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Extracted (with permission) from Datsunland, by Stephen Orr, published by Wakefield Press. It will be available from March 15.

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