The Big Issue : Edition 501
THE BIG ISSUE 26 DEC 2015 – 7 JAN 2016 33 When he spoke next he wasn’t staring at me with fire-eyes, but rather looking down towards the floor. He placed a frail hand on the bar as if to steady himself. “That was the worst thing that ever happened to this place, that fire. The worst thing.” THE DOUSING RAIN returned. I started to walk home but got distracted by a small, grey-haired woman in her driveway, wearing a muu-muu, waving and whooping it up maniacally at a passing fire truck distributing Christmas Eve lollies. She saw me watching and addressed me like an old friend. “You just have to see under my house!” It’s the kind of offer you can’t say no to, especially not on Christmas Eve. Her name was Marilyn, and before I could chase after the fire truck she was tugging at my arm and leading me away. Low-lit and cosy, it was well worth hauling strangers off the street to admire. In a converted rumpus room under the house stood an enormous collection of miniature houses – a whole town scene. Each house was backlit with yellow-glowing windows, and it was forever a winter evening. Christmas as it should be. It was magical, completely unexpected. My awe was interrupted by a shriek from Marilyn. “I lived in America for ages! Born in Mildura, emigrated to LA, now settled in Childers. How d’ya like that?” “I like that very much,” I replied, obviously still drunk. “I ran a bunch of Aussie-themed restaurants over there,” she explained. She showed me a photo of the house she owned in LA. It was a mansion. I had met my first eccentric millionaire. In Queensland, of course. “Hey, you need to come upstairs and meet Richard!” And we were off again... Richard – round, grey and smiling – was sitting in front of a computer screen. “Richard’s talking to our dear friend Gary on Skype. Gary’s a nudist, see?” Richard didn’t seem at all perturbed that his wife had brought a stranger off the street and was introducing him to naked Gary. Superbly, he even got me a glass of wine. After a short tour of the upstairs I snapped a photo of myself with Richard, Marilyn and naked Gary, as I knew no-one would believe me, and said my goodbyes. “You must come around tomorrow afternoon,” called Marilyn as I lifted the front gate latch. “It’s Christmas Day and Richard and I will be all alone. We can watch The Grinch!” The day after Christmas I stood in the middle of Bundaberg and got directions to the library. I would walk. I would get lost. Then someone would disembowel the sky and it would be like standing under a waterfall. Solid, tropical rain. Enough to make you laugh. I was drenched, hopping through puddles, hopeless. I bailed up a guy in a car park and asked him if he’d drive me to the library; it was the best idea I could think of. After weighing up my threat and deciding there was none, he consented and we cruised off in a hotted-up ute. My chauffeur was a coal miner. I felt like I should say something, so I said, “I’m going to the library to find out where my grandpa died.” I explained as much to the librarian and was led to the microfilm room. I love using microfilm. Wind it on, toggle your right fingers over the speed wheel while your left hand steers the vertical – I was driving a great race. Page after page of scanned newspapers skim past on the screen and your keen eyes pick out dates and headlines. I knew the year and the rough time of year, now I just needed a newspaper report of a crash. I changed reels and started again. Still nothing. The rest of the family texted me to say they had finished with the Sugarland Mall and where the hell was I? Then, on reel number four, my eyes caught a small story in a side column, one of the smallest reports on page eight. Two local teenagers and a man aged 75, from Kiama, NSW, had died in a collision near Eumundi. It gave the intersection. I had my location. BACK IN WOODGATE the flood was looming. Roads were closed and soggy kangaroos nibbled at soggy grass. It looked like we might be too late to get out and we’d be stranded in Woodgate with the driftwood and the glistening cane toads, but a break in the weather allowed us an early morning dash for the airport. For hours we drove along the Bruce Highway, through rain that wouldn’t stop, through overgrown grass, green as you like, away from little Childers, away from Sugarland. At Eumundi I ordered the car be pulled off the highway. We doubled back round onto a country road and I ran out into the rain. We were late for the airport. I found an old street sign, Camp Road West, and followed the disused and overgrown lane back towards the highway, where trucks roared past, obliterating puddles and leaving behind silence. Eleven years ago at this spot on the highway two cars had come together, ending three lives. There was no memorial ... My grandfather, an English navy sailor who washed up in Trieste on shore leave and married an Italian girl. Emigrated to Kiama, NSW and all but founded the town. Owned the gas station, then the motel, then the farms, then the land. Sold the land and made a killing. Bought a nightclub in Kings Cross, went bankrupt, alienated himself from his family, came home, bought a fish’n’chip shop, made more enemies, bolted to Gosford, never to return home. My grandfather, a giant Englishman, huge hands, huge voice. Taught himself to ride horses at age 50, hero of my dad; nemesis of my mum. Businessman, farmer, schemer, enthusiastic litigator, alleged womaniser. Still don’t really know anything about him. They said he had fallen asleep. So he wouldn’t have seen the bulging fruit crops or the olive-green slopes or the grumpy lump of Cooroy Mountain sneering through the clouds, or heard the wind through the crops or smelt the diesel and the sugar. From England to Italy to Kiama to here, to die where I stood on this patch of sticky, wet, most utterly Queensland of all coasts. » Ricky French is a Big Issue columnist (on p12).