Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 19

The tackle shop in Ulladulla above Dr Greene’s secret laboratory.

David Malouf aboard Slessor’s Halvorsen cruiser, reacting to the story of Phil Spector being taken down in the lake.

Ulladulla harbour at dusk, just before the arrival of The Red Oblong.

When David Malouf introduced John Milton to the poets, some called Milton for an escaped Waggaist - his red cape confused them, and his intense stare was similar to that of someone coming down from LIMP. “Put him back in the cage, David!” Roger McDonald shouted. Roger had abandoned fiction and returned to poetry, and even though he was too late for The War, he was loving the company of friends he hadn’t seen for more than forty years. “Yeah, what the fuck are you doing? Is this some kind of fashion parade?” Kevin Brophy yelled. Others join in. Milton was used to being heckled, and simply stood his ground until the abuse had subsided. Finally he turned to Malouf and said: “A great, pervasive spirit resides at the heart of this gathering. May it remain so. Now, if it be your will, guide me through the aftermath of this unholy war, this wreckage of mad design and cruelty.” Malouf looked long and hard at Milton. Even the worst parody of the great man’s speech would have been preferable to what he’d just heard. Still, it was better than not having him there at all, and so off they went on a tour of The Island.

Lucinda Williams slipped her bracelets on and ran a brush through her hair. She looked at herself in the mirror, then looked beyond her face to where Dr Greene was lying on the bed. The last thing she’d wanted was to have an affair, especially with someone whose life seemed so at odds with her own. At first she’d fallen into a drunken embrace. Two days later, after countless embraces, she was still in Greene’s apartment in Ulladulla under the shop he used as a front for his experiments. Now it was time to go. She turned to face him. “You look ravishing,” he said. “I have to go,” she said, and started to gather up her things. Greene got out of bed and went to her. He put a hand on her waist. “Don’t,” she said. “Please.” Greene watched her pack clothes into a bag. Her perfume was like sandalwood and driftwood smoke. “I was hoping we’d be able to start a new life down here,” he said. “I was never a fan of country music until I met you.” Lucinda stopped packing and half-turned towards him. “Then I suggest you return to what you were listening to before you met me,” she said through her hair. “Are you always so cold and aloof at the end of an affair?” he asked. “Only when end is another word for shipwreck,” she said, then picked up her bag and left the room.
A crowd of tuna men and local jetty rats had gathered to watch the ambulance pull into the wharf at Ulladulla. It was a crazy spectacle. A 1950s Austin Sheerline, its roof and bonnet festooned with seaweed, a dead gull hanging by a string from the aerial, and the face of a badger peering out from the passenger window. When Seidel and Ted Hughes stepped out of the ambulance, one of the tuna men said “Looks like youse are the only sick fucks needing treatment around here.” Seidel opened the rear doors, and Shelby emerged backwards, helping T.S, Eliot up the little ladder on the side the wharf. Eliot stood blinking and leaning on his cane. “Land’s End,” he said. “Good job, driver.”
Milton was exhausted. Rodney Hall and David Malouf had taken him in Kenneth Slessor’s Halvorsen cruiser on a water-based tour of The Island. Rodney had pointed out the various places where most of the action had taken place. He’d done his best to explain why the poets had fought the Waggaists, and had been animated in his description of the day Phil Spector had come to grief in the lake. Malouf was wide-eyed and had demanded intimate details. As they returned to the wharf, Milton stood on the bow of the cruiser, his red cape fluttering out behind him. “Figure this out, figurehead!” a poet had shouted as one of the confiscated Waggaist ampules hit  Milton’s shoulder and exploded. “Zest!” he exclaimed. “The essence of what the mind can achieve, under pressure!”
Dr Greene watched as Lucinda Williams got into her Chevy Silverado and pulled away. He’d put on his white lab coat and had gone out the secret side entrance to the apartment. He wanted to see her again, though didn’t know where she was going, or if she knew anyone in the area. He would find out.
Greene’s fishing tackle shop was above his lab, and was doing a fine trade in bait and lures. It was the perfect facade for his serious work. Only one person knew of what lay below the tackle shop, and they were behind the counter, selling lures to the tourists who had just begun to arrive in earnest on the South coast. The man’s name was Bobby Russo. He was a well-known fishing identity, famous for wearing a fox-skin cap and budgie-smugglers, and head-butting yellowfin tuna and bronze-whaler sharks into submission on the rocks. His book The Day the Bottom Moved - the story of how he caught a 300kg Waggafish alone, at night, from The Tubes at Jervis Bay - had been a best-seller. Dr Greene called him from the lab: “Bob, put out the word on a Chevy Silverado. I want to know where it finds a berth for the night.”
I’d taken a water-taxi from The Island to Brooklyn, then driven down to Bermagui to reach Ulladulla by night. Before I left, Dorothy Hewett had taken me aside, saying “Just get yourself to Ulladulla and I’ll meet you there as soon as I can.” She told me that Merv Lilly was coming to pick her up in his pole-barge, and they were then going drive down in the white Merc. 
I looked out over Ulladulla: an orange moon was floating up the sky from the black water.  To my side, a crested pigeon exploded from the grassbank, the jingle-bells in the sound of its flight described an arc across the cyptic twilight. Then I saw something moving on the water, at first it appeared to be another tall ship—but soon realised it was a thing I didn’t really want to see. A shape from the murky past, some old repression, was now making its presence felt in this beautiful setting. It was The Red Oblong. A glassy looking vessel made from some unknown material - it must have been at least twenty metres long - and best way to describe its shape is to call it for what it was: a large oblong that was illumintaed from within. It created a pulsating light that could travel across long distances. I grabbed my old field glasses and had a good look: on deck there were four figures, moving about in postures of unease. Two were kneeling and the other two were laying themselves onto the deck and then standing again. It looked like they were moving to some kind of religious choreography. Ater watching for some time I realised they were praying. The Oblong pushed its blunt way through the harbour and made a messy wake that chopped up the black glass into lumps of crazed redness. This evil geometric vessel was powered by either a big V8 or some old navy diesel plant— I could hear the pistons firing like the throaty purr of some fabulous big cat.
As I watched the Red Oblong being pushed into its archorage by a tugboat, I wondered if Dorothy had been tipped off about this craft of extreme redness. A row-boat had delivered the crew who had been praying on deck of the Oblong. As they walked up the steps of the wharf and into the light I recognised them all: Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas, J.S. Harry and Kerry Leves. The whole crew were dressed in black and humming some turgid mantra, their eyes were glazed and they couldn’t seem to focus. I went up to Vicki and asked her what the hell was going on, she just looked straight through me and seemed unable to respond. The others in turn did the same, they appeared to be members of some kind of red cult, all spaced out and without wills of their own. Was this a manifestation of some Waggaist hex? Who was behind it? Shelby, Dr Greene? These people were all fine poets and head-strong individuals, and it would have been extremely difficult to have brain-washed them. What was the allure of the Red Oblong? They formed a single file and walked straight by me, heading into the town. I waited until Dorothy and Merv arrived in the Merc. Dorothy walked to the end of the wharf to see what was moored there. Throwing back her hair, she moaned: “The Red Oblong, we’re all fucked.”
Ted Hughes, Frederick Seidel, Shelby and T.S. Eliot made a bizarre sight as they walked up the main street of Ulladulla. Shelby had long-since put the LIMP needle away. Hughes wasn’t going anywhere. 
They checked into The Wheelhouse, a bed-and-breakfast near the harbour. Later that evening they were sitting outside a cafe drinking and talking. A woman with golden hair, wearing a blue denim jacket and with a guitar slung over her shoulder, approached and asked if the men knew of a decent place to stay. T.S. Eliot stood up. “The Wheelhouse is splendid,” he said. As Eliot was pointing and giving the woman diections, Frederick Seidel narrowed his eyes. “Country rock meets the Wasteland. This will be interesting,” he said.
I had been given a second chance at reporting from the Front, and I was loving the challenge. Ken had basically lost heart with the whole scene and had gone back to Kings Cross. We didn’t know if he’d be back. The night before he left we threw a party for him on the tall ship. The pink gin was flowing. Ken was in fine form, making speeches and flirting with Mandy Beaumont, who kept reading from tiny hand-made books of poems and giving the eye to Bukowski. Tim Winton, who’d been told about The War by Dennis Haskell, had come over from the West on his Triumph Speedmaster, low-flying in the minor key the length of the Nullabor Plain. He thought there might be a novel in a crowd of poets tearing each other’s words out. When he arrived by tinny and saw a lot of people laughing and deep in conversation, he climbed the tall ship’s rigging and spent the night in the crow’s nest, reading old issues of Tracks magazine. I went to bed and drifted off to sleep to a Lauren Williams love song.

Geoffrey Lehmann, the Front

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