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Drinking at the Vandenberg

by Louis Armand

(for R. C. Acheson)

A certain slant of sunlight, making the walls the colour
of sarsaparilla. Grenadine and sweetmeats on the
table, five planks nailed to a pair of dead sawhorses
scavenged from construction sites. Wood-frame houses,
half-assembled, red pyramids of roof tiles, copper

piping, cement mixers. Twenty-five years ago, stashed
poetry under a brick in a hole in the ground.
There were passion fruit vines draping the tool shed
at the bottom of the garden, grape vines, cherry tree
and banana tree, the fields behind. That place

doesn’t exist anymore, now roads and suburbs and
supermarkets. First grew up in a white convict house
on Pittwater Road, The Gables, 1860, built by
Henry Miles. In those days timber huts, dirt floored,
burlap sack windows, cabbage tree roofs. Blind lady

my great-grandmother before she died, asleep
among the azaleas, hydrangeas, a red tricycle upside-
down in green fishpond. Which one of these stories
should we go on living by? Drinking at the Vandenberg
the day they buried my father’s mother, where my

father was born and I almost drowned by the sandbar
near the river bend. My father’s hand came down
out of sunlight filtering through brown water, like the
angel’s hand in Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St. Matthew.
First memory, back in the pre-everything days when

knowledge was safely out of range, and nights without
line-breaks and interruptions. Our families
did not begin here, the long migration out of Ulster,
Edinburgh, Aachen. The only way out, they knew, was to
do something. And being what they said they were?

Across the street, an empty plot where the Italian woman
kept a watermelon patch and mean broom handle.
We used to chase shadows in bamboo thickets, reeds
around the dam we watered our horses at, ironbark
sleepers piled up beside the entrance to the wrecker’s

yard. Sometimes watched the veterans sitting
outside the Australia Hotel. The ANZAC drummer,
the last post tunelessly recited once a year in front of the
town cenotaph. We knew the names by heart and knew
their families. Confronted with history, they never

stood a chance. It was a fight against all odds. Politics.
Most are gone now, the farms in hock to banks, no one
wants to farm here anymore. Hard to imagine
boating parties on the river where now there’s a petrol
station, itself already antique. What good is

nostalgia? Or memory, without progress? Or poetry?
This is what they taught us at our school. God Save
the Queen
, under hot foreign skies. After, to exist
without anybody noticing, like a clerk of the court
of petty sessions. As to the purpose, nothing can be said.

Their world was always a world away, ours was just
a type of forgery done up in Depression era gaberdine.
At night, speedway sounds and protest march delinquent
kids throwing cans at parked police cars. Striking
rail workers, dockers, BLF. Cold Chisel, Bathurst riots.

When the television broke down we left it that way,
a box filled with grey static, like a picture of what lies
behind every image. A succession of inertias, entropy.
Outside, a sky too brittle beneath and black above.
There was nowhere else to go. We didn’t believe in a

species learning to evolve, we believed only in stupidity.
Years later still talking about that woman on the corner
of Parramatta Rd, with a piece of cake in a stencilled
cake tin. Or the dead soldier who sent postcards from
Europe after the War, slept on a park bench drinking meths.

So much for bloody utopia. The decade when ideology
ended, left us standing in rain with fact-files and useless
megaphones. Walked across the Bridge on acid, head
full of Utzon and Bennelong’s ghost. How long since that
first girl-boy kiss gave little meanings to little things

and channelled us towards middle age and boredom?
Of course we live in a better world, someone must have
pulled us all up by the bootstraps. Growing up, the
distance travelled was never so far as we imagined it
should have been. Once everything had been done for us.