They killed the town where I grew up. Broke its heart. Butchered and dismembered it. Carried away and cannibalised the parts deemed of value. Ploughed the rest under and turned it into a hole in the ground. You could just about taste the grief it caused; almost reach out and touch it. For people who’d lived their lives there, raised children or buried friends. But I thought it a fitting end. And had it been possible, I would have danced on its grave.
I am standing, as near as I can tell, where our house once stood, on one of two hills flanking the town’s western edge. Below me and to the east, dredgers like giant steel locusts crawl over the coalface, cutting it with great revolving bucket-wheels. Their work seems slow but it is inexorable. They shift housefuls of coal, but nothing seems to change. It does though. In its own time.
Everything changes in its own time, my father used to say. Even the hills change but so slowly we’ll never see it. There are trees up there, he once said, squinting eastward into the morning sun, there are trees up there in the Jeeralangs that fell over a hundred years ago and still haven’t rotted away.
He was a man obsessed by time; never could get enough of it. And he would measure it with his hands and feet, beating a tattoo on the kitchen table, tapping his soles against the floorboards, always anxious to be going, to keep moving.
And moving was something we did a lot of when I was young. First one town and then another as he chased promotion, chased a better life. And when I was ten years old, we came at last to Yallourn, a smug and coddled company town of immaculate streets and nominal rents and twice weekly garbage collections and paternalistic healthcare; some people’s idea of heaven on earth. I hated the place from the day I saw it.
We had come from Bendigo, a place I loved. A city with a history. A city of mullock heaps and gold shafts and poppet heads. A city that set the colony on its feet in the dizzy days of gold. I loved its raw red hungry earth. Loved the lichen-covered boulders strewn across the nearby hills as though they had been flung from the hands of giants. I loved the big sky and the wafer-thin clouds. I even loved a girl there, or thought I did.
And then we came to the heart of the Latrobe Valley, to the pampered legoland village of Yallourn. A dying town then, though I didn’t yet know it. A town that was dying before it was born. Conceived in the minds of engineers and accountants and built, for the purposes of economy, on a seam of coal – a decision that dooms it. Its days like the days of man are numbered. And its life-long labour, is to dig its own grave.
I watch the bucket-wheels cutting the coalface, slicing through time, dredging the past. As I stand there with my kids, I do some dredging of my own. I remember another time. And I am standing with my father watching the giant locusts devour the coal. He is pointing at the open cut, telling me time is layered against its walls and eons are measured in inches.
Long ago he says, long before the white man and the aborigine, there was a swamp and a forest that grew within it. It stretched beyond the horizon in all directions and as each tree died it fell into the swamp. Over a period of thirty million years, the trees were laid down, one upon the other, until the conditions that gave rise to it changed, and the forest at last died out.
Thirty million years he says, pausing for emphasis, raising his eyebrows.
How long is thirty million years Dad, I ask.
He looks at me and gives me one of his slow quiet smiles. How far from here to Melbourne he asks me. Ninety-three miles I say. Sounds about right to me he says. Now imagine ninety-odd miles is thirty million years. How old are you, ten? I nod my head. If thirty million years is from here to Melbourne, how long do you reckon ten years’d be? I dunno I say. He could tell me anything and I wouldn’t have a clue. Go on have a guess he says. A hundred yard dash do you reckon? A cricket pitch? A cricket pitch I say. He grins again and slowly pulls his right hand out from behind his back.
That’s me, he says, stretching his fingers as wide as he can, forty years. And you, he holds thumb and forefinger about two inches apart, that’s you; ten years old. And thirty million years is ninety miles. From here to Melbourne.
I stand near the coalface, now, not then, as a father, no longer a son. It occurs to me, for the first time, how idiosyncratic is that image, how typical of him. For time is distance, he always says, distance between things happening. But time for him is absolute. A relentless metronome measuring an unvarying beat. He thinks Einstein is a madman. If time can change, then it’s not time, it’s something else he says. But in this as in other things I will learn he is not infallible. He cannot conceive of time as elastic, yet the evidence is everywhere. I am back with my father looking forward and time seems to stretch forever. I stand beside my son looking backwards and wonder where it went.
It is said by some that everyone has a book inside them. If so, then my father’s is a novel about Roman Britain, about the clash of the Druids and the New God. He tells me as his retirement draws near he might just get around to it at last. When he’s on easy street. With time on his hands. I am dubious about this but refrain from saying so. I am sure he does have a book inside of him, but I’m not sure it’s a novel. I feel certain he lacks the imagination for such an undertaking. But in the end it is not lack of imagination that will thwart him.
Years after his death, my mother shows me an essay he wrote as a boy. It is an account of some forgotten Scottish princess journeying to her wedding; an imaginative and beautiful piece. Sixty years later I read it in a tumult of emotions. Pride competes with frustration at a talent gone untended. A father’s frustration. For in this confrontation with his secret past, I feel an unsettling sense of dislocation. As though our lives have been transposed. As though he is the son and I am the father.
Brown coal he is telling me, pointing at the strata. The Germans have it too he says, they call it lignite. Younger than black coal and safer too. Open cut mining you see, none of this burrowing underground, coughing your lungs up, dying before your time. This stuff’s beautiful he says. No miner’s lung here. No problems here with lungs. None that he knew about anyway. None he was told about. Asbestos is never mentioned. And all the while growing in his lungs is the condition that will kill him. The condition with the unpronouncable name mesalithelioma. Its work too is slow but it is inexorable as it dredges away the living tissue, transforming it into a detritus of shredded rags.
Later, much later or perhaps not so much later; half a handspan on his roadmap of time, he lies in a hospital bed, hooked up to a machine, oxygen fed to him through tubes. I’ll beat this thing he tells me. I don’t intend to chuck it in just yet. I have learned by now he is not infallible, he does not know everything, but just this one last time, I can almost believe him. A few days later he turns to my sister. Are you the nurse he asks. Are you the Navy nurse? He is dredging his own past now, peeling back the years.
I watch the dredger as it peels back the eons. I am standing in time, if not quite in place, much where my father stood – into my forties, the span of an outstretched hand. A couple of years before he dies my father asks me, any ideas on marriage. Got anyone in mind he wonders. I laugh. Why this sudden urge to marry me off I ask. He looks a little sheepish. Oh well he says, we like to see our kids fixed up before we shuffle off. Fixed up I hoot. We fall about laughing. Settled down, he says at last.
An autumnal wind whips through the valley, lifting a shadow of dust from the coal face, like mist from the crest of a wave. I hold my left hand out in front of me and stretch my fingers as wide as I can. I bring my right hand out as well, spreading it, holding it against the other, thumb to thumb. With luck I’ll make it. My children are still young, but it is my fervent hope I will live long enough to play with their children. If they wait as long as I did to start a family, it may not be possible.
I lower my hands and my daughter tugs at one. She has no hat and the wind is bothering her. Can we go now Dad she asks. Soon, I say. You can wait in the car if you like.
My son remains beside me, clutching my leg. He is eighteen months old. Less than a blade of grass on the verge of time, but already he is riding the great exponential curve, his brain digesting in days what his ancestors took millenia to master. Eons of evolution fast forwarding, as he learns to oppose his thumb, to walk and talk and understand his world. His tiny hand wraps around my finger. I seem like a giant to him; omnipotent and indestructible. Time will prove otherwise. As he grows and I diminish, he will bear witness to my fallibility.
My daughter sits in the car. Through the glass, I can hear her chattering in her trilling bird-like voice. Always chattering, always asking questions I can’t always answer.
My son looks up at me and in a gesture pre-dating language raises his arms. I pick him up and carry him toward the car.
In Wales, there is a mining town that lies beneath a lake. Stone houses and cobbled streets lay drowned by progress – a grim parody of Atlantis. There is no such resting place for Yallourn. It has turned to dust and like the men it killed, lives only in memory.
I start the car to begin our journey back to Melbourne. A journey of thirty million years.