It was 1946 when I first became aware of the river, down through the paddocks at the rear of our backyard. I was only three at the time. Donny, two years older, led me there through the tall weeds, and pointed out its snake-belly shape, light dancing from its surface as it writhed along the willow-tree lined banks down below. “Sharks in there,” he said, “will gobble you up, don’t tell Mum I showed you,” before scuttling back bare-footed, me running behind like a puppy, through the holes in the paling fence and into our backyard.
When I think back to my childhood now, I see it cut into two separate periods: the first seven years leading up to Donny’s accident in 1950, and the ten years following it, until I left in 1960 to go to Teachers’ College in the New England Tablelands.
Dad had rented the house after he married Mum. It was just across the road from Grandma’s house and dairy farm, so Mum could run home whenever she wanted to. As a result, she never quite got to grow up, being stuck in a child’s pose, while having to play an adult role.
I can still hear him saying in his slow country drawl: “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know, Kathleen,” and then Mum’s outpourings flooding his brain: “A modern house, in town, is all I want, a few mod. cons, electric heater and stove, instead of the dirty old fuel one. What’s the use of buying more machinery, more bullocks, when we have to live like this? Sell a few of those beasts, why don‘t you?”
Dad, less vocal, spoke in clichés, trying to fit a word in somehow. “Any fool can spend,” he’d say. “but a wise man knows how to save. There can only be one captain of a ship, Kathleen.”
But she was going deaf by then, as a result of giving birth to us kids, and she had no intention of obeying, in any case.
Our place was one mile outside the town boundary in a place called Waterview. The name was redundant, though, because the river from the road was actually hidden from view, and there was no water to be seen at all.
At times, as if determined to make sense of the name, the Clarence would burst its bladder, overflow the banks and flood the whole district and everything surrounding, and our house would be afloat in a sea of swampy brown water as far as the eye could see.
At school I learnt that the Clarence River starts in the McPherson Ranges on the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range in Queensland. Like a beast it devours the countryside, forging deep gorges through wilderness areas and creating spectacular waterfalls on its journey towards my valley.
More visible from our place was the old highway that ran past our front door, heading west towards the tablelands. For me it was just the way to Dad’s bush paddock, where he had a self-made ‘bush hut’ next to a creek, and red-and-white bullocks on gum-tree covered hillsides.
The same road in the opposite direction went into town. You could turn left into the village of Waterview, or ignore it completely and head for the coast.
Dad told me that the main town was cradled in the bottom of the “bucket” formed by the river’s gyrations, with Waterview below the base.
As it approaches the valley, the Clarence River does a twist, as if unsure about its goal, then pulls abruptly back again, forming the misshaped nose, as it slithers towards the sea.
Waterview was the nearest town to us. There was one main street with horses tied up outside a pub and shops with old-fashioned timber facades and galvanised-iron roofs. The chemist had skin that had turned blue, and we kids imagined that he had mixed and tried out one of his weird potions on himself. There was a post office, a bank and a grocer. The river was at the end of the street.
The Clarence, by the time it reached us, was a deep wide river that nourished the dairy farms and sugar cane properties of the rich coastal plains on its journey seawards. It swirled past some of the biggest inland islands of the Southern Hemisphere, some with girls’ names, on its way to the coast.
Pregnant and fertile, it spilled its innards out into the Pacific Ocean at Yamba and Iluka, after slithering lazily and fatly from its turning point at Waterview, and passing via Maclean, where the salt water from the sea merged with it, and where my father first saw my mother at a dance in a church hall perched on cliffs overlooking the River.
None of this meant much to me when I was a kid. We lived in Waterview and the main town was a place across the bridge. Only now do I wonder at the destiny that stranded me there.
A place where on the map, lines meet and converge into a point from the north, south, east and west; roads and waterways, like tentacles weaving outwards from around an imaginery central cross. As an innocent little thing, I was held captive in these imaginary lines, without knowing it. Squeezed between the river and the highway, like a fly in a spider’s web. Like Persephone trapped in the underworld.
At least that’s how it seems now, looking back on the 1950s that ushered in so many bad feelings.
The crooked bridge was the link joining Waterview to the northern bank. But I think I saw it as a schism: a giant edifice in concrete and steel, a place of danger, where sinister ‘bogie-men’ roamed and sea-monsters with sharp talons and cruel appendages lurked around the pylons in the green depths of the waters.