Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 40

A Waggaist hiding in the trees outside Brooklyn.

An empty street in Geraldton.

Dennis Hopper on the beach at Geraldton.

As Michael Dransfield and Andrew Burke drove into Geraldton, a light rain began falling. The place was all but empty. The windy streets were lined with paper bags and other blown refuse. As they rolled down the main street, Michael noticed that many of the offices and businesses had boards and tin-sheets nailed over their windows. He asked if Andrew knew what had happened. Andrew shrugged and pulled over outside an empty bakery. They got out into a cold wind. The rain was heavier now and it angled onto the footpath. “This is very odd,” Andrew said as they sought refuge under an awning. “Last time I was here the place was humming.” As they stood trying to keep dry and wondering what to do, an old woman came around the corner with a red heeler on a leash. The heeler jumped when it saw the poets, then ran to stand beside the old woman where it curled its lip and sat down uneasily. “Excuse me,” Andrew said to her, “but why is Geraldton so quiet? Where is everyone?” The old woman spoke to her dog: “It’s because the show that never came has finally come,” she said. “What show?” Andrew asked. The old woman spoke to her dog again. “The one we said was over before it began,” she said, and nodded. The heeler was looking up at her expectantly. “Could you be a bit more cryptic?” Michael Dransfield said. The old woman looked away from the dog and fixed him with a glare. “Sarcasm is the last refuge of fools and thieves. Come along Red, these men are uneven and dangerous.” The poets watched as she turned the corner, the heeler giving them a lingering look as it went.
The Waggaists emerged from the bush. They were very cold and their bodies had been scratched and torn. Alison Croggan adjusted her lyre-bird skirt and scanned the scene. She saw how the main entrance to town had been fenced where it led down to the Angler’s Rest. A couple of bikers were standing at the main gate, arms folded. An ambulance was parked beside the gate, facing up the road, and Bill Wisley was talking to one of the paramedics. “We need to get through,” Alison said. “But not like this.” She turned and looked around. There were houses close by, and in their backyards she could see Hills hoists and pole-and-twine washing lines with clothes flapping on them. “I need two volunteers to go and steal those clothes,” she said. The Waggaists found sudden interest in the sky and earth. “You, you, and you” she said. The Waggaists cursed, but didn’t argue. They set off in a crouching run, keeping low among the shrubs and tall grass. They entered the yards and unpegged the clothes, then returned with their arms overspilling with fabric. There was barely enough clothing to go around, but they managed to cover most of their bodies. The men had to make do with shorts and jeans, some put t-shirts on, some had to go bare-chested. The women covered themselves with dresses, shorts, jeans, t-shirts, overalls, an ill-fitting assortment of casual and formal wear. The Waggaists stood among the trees and shrubs looking ridiculous and self-aware. “They’ll think we’ve run away from the nuthouse,” someone said. “Well we have,” said another. Alison Croggan stared down the road. Bill Wisely had left the ambulance and had gone back into town. The bikers were still standing at either side of the gate, their sunglasses gleaming. “We need a distraction,” Alison said. She looked around the group. “Now I need someone to get the attention of those paramedics. Who can do a convincing fainting spell?” A man put up his hand. “I can do them for real,” he said. “So what needs to happen before you faint?” Alison asked. “Mostly it’s the sight of my own blood,” he said, “but sometimes all it takes is to remember a time when I was bleeding.” Alison looked back at the ambulance. “Off you go then,” she said. “Get out into the middle of the road and remember away.” The man began stuttering and protesting. “But I might fall down on the road,” he said. Alison Croggan took him aside. “Shut the fuck up and get your blood-fearing arse out onto that road now. When you’ve got their attention, get as close to the side of the road as you can, then do your thing with blood and memory.” He looked around at the others. The others looked away. His lips trembled. “But,” he said, then he saw how Alison’s eyes were clouding over. “Okay,” he said, and walked out gingerly onto the road. He walked a few paces towards the main gate, then stopped and stood with his head bowed. The Waggaists watched and waited. He started swaying. He lifted a hand to his face. The hand fell away and hung by his side. Then he started staggering. The ambulance engine roared into life. He made it to the side of the road and went over. He dropped like a bag of rags and hit the road. The ambulance pulled away from the gate and came roaring up the road. “I want you all to hide. When I get their attention and bring them over, jump them and make sure they don’t get up again.” When the ambulance reached the fallen Waggaist, the paramedics leapt out and knelt down beside him.  Then Alison stepped forward. “Aggghhhhh,” she screamed. The paramedics looked over. They saw a woman standing with her face in her hands. Then the woman fell down. One of the paramedics ran over and knelt beside her. Alison was holding her breath. “Better grab the defibrillator,” Jack, I think we’ve got a cardiac arrest.” Jack left the fallen Waggaist, who had come around and was sitting up in the gravel. When he reached his partner he unzipped the red defibrillator bag and knelt down. The Waggaists came out of hiding and fell upon the paramedics. They knocked them out and dragged them away into the trees. They stripped their clothes, then Alison and a young man put the uniforms on. Using vines and the belts, they tied the unconscious men to the base of a tree and gagged them. Alison climbed into the driver’s seat. The other Waggaist joined her up front. The others climbed into the back and closed the door. They only just managed to fit. In a tangle of arms and legs and stolen clothes, they started arguing and shoving as the ambulance pulled away. “Silence!” Alison shouted. “We’re going in.”
Dransfield and Burke were amazed at how quiet Geraldton was. Everywhere they looked the streets were empty. The rain had stopped and a clear sky had given the buildings and houses a startling glow. When they reached the harbour, they got out and stood on the sand. The breakwall’s broken spine went out into deep water. On the far side of the bay, a stand of pines looked like a watercolour bleed. As they looked around, they saw someone at the far end of the beach. They took off their shoes and started walking towards this lone figure. As they got closer they could see it was a man. He was holding a large black book in his hands. When the man saw the poets he raised the book in welcome. “Hello friends,” the man said in an American accent. He was dressed in black jeans, a black shirt, black boots and was wearing Ray-bans. Michael Dransfield stopped walking and stared at the man. “It’s Dennis Hopper,” he said. “Bullshit,” Andrew Burke said, then looked closer at the man. “Bloody hell, it is Dennis Hopper.” Dennis walked up to the poets and extended his hand. “It’s good to see you,” he said, smiling broadly. 
Dennis told the poets he’d been on his way to an island north of Sydney with Marlon Brando more than a month ago. Their friend the poet Philip Levine had told them about the Poetry War, and they were keen to come and lend a hand. Brando had insisted they fly to Perth first as he’d heard there was a restaurant in Fremantle that served the world’s best seafood gumbo. Dennis said he’d soon tired of Brando’s endless demands and moods, and had gone off to a club where he’d scored some speed. Then he’d returned to the restaurant, completely wired and full of talk. Brando was in to his third dish of gumbo, and all but ignored him. “To get his attention, I went into my James Cagney routine, but that just pissed him off,” Dennis said. Then I started reciting his own lines from Apocalypse Now. ‘The horror, the horror,’” Dennis said, and doubled over, laughing. “You should have seen his face. He went pale then red, then he stood up and turned the table over. Shrimp and fish and sauce went flying. Oh Lord, what a carnival!” Andrew Burke was feeling ill. He knew that it was indeed Dennis Hopper there on the sand before him, but nothing he’d ever read, seen or heard approached the madness he felt descending upon him in. “I think we’d better go,” he said to Dransfield, but Michael had gone head-and-heart-first into Hopper’s story. “So what happened then?” he asked. Dennis opened the big black book - a dictionary - and started reading. “Convolvulus,” he said. “A trailing or twining plant with funnel-shaped flowers.” He looked over the black edge of the dictionary. “Isn’t that a beautiful thing?” He opened the book again. “Denouement,” he savoured the word. “The unraveling or clarification of a plot.” He shivered. “Mellifluous words. They steal your breath,” he said. Michael agreed, then said “But why are you in Geraldton?” Dennis Hopper closed the dictionary and looked out over the harbour. “I left Brando to sort things out in the restaurant and went back to the club. I fell in with a very bad crowd. Speed, heroin, the best hash I’ve ever smoked. Whisky. I went under that swift current and stayed there. When I woke up I was in the back of a camper van, just up there near the marina. I’d been driven to Geraldton.” He smiled and removed his Ray-bans. “Isn’t life grand,” he said quietly. Andrew Burke had wandered off and was sitting up on the grass above the beach. He was talking loudly to himself: “Edward Hopper. Grasshoppers. Dennis Hopper,” he said. “Is your friend alright?” Dennis asked. Michael looked up at Andrew. “He’ll be fine,” he said. “He’s just doing it hard with the living and the dead.” “Aren’t we all,” Dennis said. “And who would have it any other way?”

G. Lehmann.

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