The few Suburban Tours without Two were something of an anti-climax. Norm, in full uniform, cheerily greeted each passenger, but, being silent, he was really a mascot. Maddy loved her brassy Maggie clobber and persona, and she made a meal of it. She occasionally ad-libbed a phrase or omitted too literal a statement, but mostly just read One’s carefully crafted script, the genius of her performance being that the pages in her hand looked like a shopping list she had forgotten to put down. She held the eye of every passenger.
One listened from the passenger seat in the front, noting which phrases seemed to get the best response, castigating himself within for repetitions, bad jokes, observations that went on too long. It was illuminating and scarifying having another performer read his words – it exposed the faults like an x-ray. He should have been reading his material to someone all along…
Being so irrelevant to the show (a tour of significant suburban trees), One was shocked when a passenger insisted upon talking with him.
One had made Maggie say: “The road is a river”.
“There’s real rivers out there you know,” the rotund stranger countered.
One typed away as quickly as he could on his little screen.
WE SPEND ALL OUR TIME ON ROADS – WE LIVE IN CITIES
“Not all of us.”
The contrarian was white of hair and beard, as well as roundish. He was robust, even sprightly, but upwards of sixty.
One wanted to escape the ornery passenger, but the old man’s composure made him reconsider. He was handsome through rude health, a face rewarded by the body’s outdoor exertions, naturally tanned. One spent more time soaking in a person’s aura, the feel he got from them, since he lost words.
“I appreciate that you are trying to see things differently…” the old man said, but he was chuckling at the folly of One’s enterprise.
“You should see some real rivers.”
If he really did Suburban Tours like this, all his off-the-wall ideas, he was going to take risks and he would run into naysayers. He was going to be wrong about things, he would utter theories and jokes that did not inspire or amuse his passengers. He would occasionally be boring, sometimes annoying, often baffling.
Bushman came to see One a week later.
Maddy said that just because a passenger came back for more, it didn’t mean that One had to take off with him, a total stranger, for a camping trip, but they both knew that in a way it did, because that was the life One was on record as stating he wanted to live, following obsessions and hunches to unknowable destinations.
Bushman was not at all smug or condescending in his backyard. His backyard appeared to be anywhere the road was not sealed, especially anywhere it was steep and heavily forested. The High Country. Roads getting narrower the more they crimped upward, a ridge-top eyrie beside a massive granite peak.
The whole mountain was a rock, One realised, and these boulders, big as houses, were little crumbs. The whole region, Bushman explained, was a rocky convulsion of a distant time; the whole Great Dividing Range, all the way to tropical Queensland.
One’s mind was already blown, and he hadn’t seen stars yet. Hot until the final stages of their ascent, after nightfall it was cool.
“We’re at about 1200 metres,” Bushman offered. “Gets chilly up here most times of year. You can get a bushfire one day, and a snowfall the next, in summer.”
One had provided nothing, brought nothing but a Dummies book. Bushman supplied a swag, and a jacket. He was used to such ignorance; it was a drill he performed without rancour or judgement.
They gathered firewood, Bushman wrangling old stumps as big as his torso, One relegated to gathering kindling as small as he could find.
“We’re going to rub sticks together?” One asked, once their fuel was stacked as Bushman required.
The old man laughed, and flung a can towards the sticks and logs. It dribbled a thick, black mixture.
“Sump oil. Stand back!”
The oil was not explosive, it seemed a dour relative of the thinner gasoline and even diesel, but its persistent flame incubated the fire until it was ravenously vital.
“Everything for you guys is something off TV,” Bushman started.
“You’ve seen a campfire on TV, or read about it, so you think you don’t need to experience it.”
Bushman was a pyromaniac, fussing incessantly with his just-contained exhibition, in a relaxed, almost meditative slowness, constantly kicking at a log or poking at a protruding branch, always staying part of the process of the burning. A fire, always transforming, could never be perfected. When cleaning, or painting, or building, or driving, there was the illusion of conclusion.
Tasks in this wilderness took a billion lifetimes, and never stopped, he got that. Mountains arose where once there were seas, animals learnt tricks of adaptation, but they didn’t do it fast.
“Fuckin’ dry this country, even here now. There’s some water underground in a few places, but mostly it’s got to run off somewhere. Mostly it’s got to rain, which isn’t happening much anymore. The drought just goes on and on.”
Bushman wanted everything to be contemplated. Either that, or his metabolism was slow. He permitted them some booze now, a rum and coke, and One began to enjoy the lecture, and forget the itchiness of sitting on the ground against a log.
“A river is a fuckin’ miracle in Australia. You look at these ranges, how many gullies there are to run off all these peaks, a little bit of moisture here and there… It gathers, eventually there’s a trickle somewhere, and it somehow joins the trickle from further along and…”
Bushman smiled and shook his head at the improbability of an Australian river. The very idea.
One was feeling a sleep coming on that he had wanted for nearly a year. A bumpy ride out of Melbourne, some mountain air, a campfire, this old man’s hypnotic musings, and two sugary cans of booze, and he was ready to sleep where he lay.
“Ben Markham told me you had been through a bit lately. Yep, we thought it might do you good to come up here…”
Bushman didn’t need nature-stricken One’s words.
“You see, I can understand a dry river bed. A seasonal river in the desert. Come wet season up river, you can see it fill up. That’s an amazing sight, but I can get it – it rains a heap, there will be water. But a river that never stops running…”
One thought his comparison of the Monash Freeway with a river was all the more apt, but he didn’t say so.
“Road’s just where other people have been. It’s the easiest way, usually. Path of least resistance and so on.”
One was watching the fire now, and trying to stay awake.
“What do you think about roads?”
One thought that it was pretty amazing that there were roads, however rough, into places like this, so isolated, so remote.
“Oh, there’s people through here all the time.”
Bushman poked anew, squinting as the fire’s smoke pursued him.
“People do get around, you’re right. We like to explore, see what’s what, that’s for sure. Not many habitats you won’t find the human laying down tracks.”
Everything Bushman said had metaphorical significance in this setting. The simple discussion of basic facts, or truths, that’s all he did. That’s all this was about. No hidden truths or agendas, except that which you did not know about the natural world, why the rocks convulsed millions of years ago, why animals were nocturnal, why snow gums were runty and twisted, why there was water underground in some places and not others. All information that was out there, up for grabs.
The legends of the countryside, they belonged to the people who roamed the ridges and rivers and rocks, they were simple facts not available to tourists.