LOVE IN BRIGHT LANDSCAPES

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An autobiographical short story about Australia

Submitted: February 24, 2013

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Submitted: February 24, 2013

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LOVE IN BRIGHT LANDSCAPES

 

It was 8988 miles from Cambridge to Mandurah. I knew the distance by heart. 8988 miles if you could fly direct, but of course you could not. I knew it would be much further in reality. It was a long way to go for an album cover.

 

The album cover in question was the Triffids 1986 album ‘Born Sandy Devotional’, and the picture was of the Western Australian town of Mandurah, taken in 1961. It showed a rolling vision of sand dunes, blue skies and bluer seas. It looked wild and isolated and beautiful in its bleakness. It looked exactly how the album sounded - songs with titles like The Seabirds, and Estuary Bed and Lonely Stretch and Wide Open Road. If that was what Australia was like then I wanted to be there.

 

I first heard The Triffids in 1987. I fell in love with their album ‘Calenture’. A calenture is an old word for tropical fever or heatstroke accompanied by delerium. Sailors in tropical seas would see a kind of mirage, believe they had spied land, fields, green grass, and jump over board towards it. I learnt all that from the dustjacket, of course, for I had never heard the word before. Who names albums like that? The Triffids were the perfect band to appeal to my teenage self - I wanted to be different, I fancied myself to be more creative, more literary, more discerning than my friends. Most people listened to Dire Straits and Queen. The cool kids listened to The Smiths or The Cure. I was the only one who listened to The Triffids and that suited me just fine.

 

I soon bought all the previous Triffids albums and, like a new lover, every new thing I found out about them only made me love them more. I was infatuated. They came from Perth in WA, which was apparently the most isolated city on the planet. In 1989 they released ‘The Black Swan’ which proved to be their last album. I thought then and still think now that it’s the greatest album ever recorded. Musically and lyrically it was more varied than before, but still, listening to it, I was plunged straight back into the Australia of my imagination - 

 

Well I made good time but took some bad advice, I got lost in the salt lakes maybe once or twice, Days went missing, Weeks they folded in two, I lost track of them, I don’t pine for you’.

 

I never did get to see The Triffids play. They were never very popular and didn’t play many shows in England. The only tour I could have seen them there was some compelling reason why I couldn’t go. I don’t remember exactly why - exams, maybe, something like that. I was devastated, but it only made me want to go to Australia more. 

 

The record company dropped them when The Black Swan didn’t sell. Critics said it was too ambitious. Others said they had moved away from their roots. But they made music which was never going to fit into easy categories. They would never get played on the radio. I guess no matter what era they were recording in, they would never sell many records.

 

David McComb was the singer and wrote all the songs. It was his vision which infused their music. After ‘The Black Swan’, he went back to Australia and started playing shows with a band called The Black-Eyed Susans. I had missed The Triffids play, but I wasn’t going to miss another chance. I booked my ticket to Australia. 

 

I landed in Melbourne. It is a leafy city where it rains a lot and in winter, under its grey overcast skies, you could close your eyes and easily imagine yourself back in England. It was not the Australia I had imagined. I went to see bands playing in local bars but it was all muscular bar-room rock. Rough places where beer got thrown over the crowd, men wore sleeveless shirts and fights sporadically spilled into the parking lots outside. 

On the radio was not the music of the Australian bands I adored - not only The Triffids, but also The Go-Betweens, Martha’s Vineyard, Nick Cave, The Chills. Instead it was wall-to-wall INXS, Midnight Oil and more popular than either were John Farnham and Jimmy Barnes. I had never heard of them before and never wanted to hear them again. It was grunt rock, music to remind you only of other better songs. Some people write songs because they can, some people because they have to. These were the former.

 

I got talking to an Australian girl in a Melbourne bar one night. When I mentioned the Triffids she nodded vaguely, but I suspected that she hadn’t even heard of them. She liked Hunters & Collectors, who sounded like a Depeche Mode tribute act to me.

 

I bought my ticket and saw The Black-Eyed Susans. They were a great band but David McComb wasn’t the main singer or songwriter. It was a thrill to finally see him, of course. Up on stage he looked exactly as he had in the pictures I used to cut out of the NME, louche, lank, lithe - kind of preppy, from a distance, but up close there was something almost desperate about him, something of the morning after the night before. I had finally got to hear him play, but of course it wasn’t The Triffids. It was a small venue and the band were literally playing right in front of the crowd. I wanted to go up to David, try to think up something witty and enigmatic to say, or just simply tell him how much I loved his music, how much The Triffids meant to me. But of course I didn’t. The band went out through a door at the back of the bar and my chance was gone. 

 

I walked out into the chill Melbourne night. It couldn’t end there. This wasn’t the Australia I was looking for, the place I had come so far to find. I knew I would have to search harder. I was convinced it was still out there, somewhere. I had to go to Perth. Perth is almost 2000 miles away from Melbourne. That’s as far as from England to Moscow, or to Istanbul. Why would I expect them to be the same?

 

I booked my ticket on the bus. The route led to Adelaide first, then it would take 2 1/2 days to go on to Perth. I went to buy a new book for the journey. In a bookstore in Melbourne I opened Tom Flood’s ‘Oceana Fine’ and read the first line - ‘The landscape is so immense, huge and hot like nothing on this earth, that I fear it might swallow me. The heat makes its own horizon, multi-layered and inconstant. Out of this mirage runs a highway.’ I knew Tom Flood had seen the Australia I was looking for. Even if it was a calenture, I wasn’t the only one seeing it. 

 

Adelaide was warmer but no more interesting than Melbourne. I spent a couple of days wandering its pleasant, neat and clean streets but for me it was only a truckstop on the route to Perth. 

 

Finally it was time to get back on the bus for the marathon drive to Perth. Something like 54 hours straight travel. The bus trundled off from Adelaide, along the Eyre Highway. The route skirted the central red desert, through the region known as the Nullarbor Plain. A scorched and ravaged zone where barely a tree grew for thousands of miles. I felt foolish when I saw the signs and realised what Nullarbor meant - treeless - the treeless plain. 

 

The first Triffids album was called Treeless Plain. Now I knew the place David McComb had in mind when he wrote those songs. 

 

I settled back in my seat, I couldn’t quite stretch my legs out. I had bought a few sets of new batteries for my Walkman and played Triffids cassettes on endless rotation. The heat gradually built up in the bus. The rain of Melbourne was left far behind and the sun beat relentlessly down on our tin can coach. We had aircon but it was an old bus where the seats were ripped and graffiti-ed and it was almost as dusty inside as out. The driver put on some video cassettes which had been badly recorded off the TV and were almost impossible to watch. He had Lethal Weapon, Coming To America, Mad Max, Tootsie and a few random episodes of Prisoner Cell Block H. I concentrated on my book, and my Walkman, and watching the scenery go by ouitside. 

 

At first sight the Nullarbor Plain was awesome in its bleakness. Hot and flat and dusty and seemingly never-ending. Occasional scrubby little townships appeared briefly by the side of the road. It was easy to imagine them as the “One Mechanic Towns’ which The Triffids sang about. Through one long lonely stretch you could see beautiful views of the ocean. But the eventual, inevitable impression was one of fatigue. It just went on. On and on and on, much like our bus journey. The scenery barely changed for mile upon mile upon mile. 

 

I sat cramped in my seat, sweating now, sipping on mineral water that had long since gone warm, watching the scenery go by. The sun glared through the bus windows, the Nullarbor Plain seemed to burn under the sun’s magnifying glass. Hardly anything lived out here. Occasional birds flew across the sky but only on the coastal stretch. Further in, we saw barely a creature, barely a bush. Just dusty scrub. Coming from Europe, it’s hard to come to terms with the sheer scale of Australia, how far everything is, how long it takes to get anywhere, and just how empty it is. You can turn 360deg and see emptiness in every direction for as far as the eye can see. 

 

I lay back in my seat. At truckstops I splashed water on my face and under my arms. I changed my T-shirt on the second day. But the sweat soon starts to cling to you until there is nothing you can do. I read all of Oceana Fine. It was a strange and eerie and unnerving story - a story which chimed perfectly with the Australia all around me now. And I filled page after page in my journal - with thoughts, ideas, story fragments and lyrics. 

 

Though my headphones, David McComb sang songs about the landscape all around me. 

 

The sky was big and empty, My chest filled to explode, I yelled my insides out at the sun, At the wide open road

 

Whatever else I would find, I knew this was the place. This was that different world, that other planet. Driving down the Nullarbor Plain, for hour after hour, it was easy to imagine you were driving out to the edge of the world. If you try to imagine the world after the apocalypse, then it probably looks something like that.

 

When the bus stopped, the smokers would crowd round behind the bus, but I would walk out, out into the dusty landscape, with my sunglasses on, out as far as I dared before the coach would set back off, and see as much of this world as I could. But mostly it didn’t look any different from what I could see from the bus. Most of the houses I saw were tumble-down with back yards filled with old tyres and rusting pieces of machinery. There were the odd few colonial style grand houses but they were the exception. The only living on the Nullarbor Plain is subsistence. I wondered why people would want to scratch a living out here. And then I remembered why I had come, and the pull this strange wilderness was exerting on me, and I think I understood. 

 

At last we reached Perth. It was a bigger and newer city than I was expecting, but still, I felt like a pilgrim finally reached the Holy land. It had a completely different feel to anywhere else I had ever been. No matter how big it had grown, it was still a frontier town. It felt like the end of civilization, teetering on the precipice of its own Wild West. And, of course, it was hot. Hot hot hot.

 

And from this window, I can see the street below, I can hear the hit parade, on the radio, There’s dirty dishes, piling up in the sink, But it’s too hot to move, And it’s too hot to think’...

 

I checked into the Backpackers in the City. I washed the dust and sweat off under a long cold shower. I went down to the market and bought some fish which I went back and cooked in the kitchen of the hostel. I bought a big bottle of Perth’s famous Swan lager too and sat down at the scarred table in the hostel kitchen to write in my journal. I had come 8988 miles as the crow flies to be here, and far more in reality along dusty Australian roads, but now it all felt completely worthwhile.

 

I was conscious of someone watching me and I looked up. She was a short pretty girl with curly hair. ‘What are you writing?’ she asked. 

 

I felt myself blushing and hoped the suntan would hide it. ‘It’s a story’, I told her. 

 

Her name was Karen and she was from England, over in Australia travelling with 2 friends.   Although it might seem strange to meet someone in Australia who lived less than 50 miles away from me in England, it was par for the course on the backpacker trail. It was actually rarer to meet Australians, though there were a few Kiwis in the hostels. Karen was just out of college and was earning traveling money by helping out in hair salons. We got talking and I told her about the story I was writing and I told her about my trip so far. She invited me out with her friends and so we went out to hit the bars of Perth. I drank lots more Swan lager and at various points throughout the evening I told all of them about The Triffids, and the lyrics, and the album cover, and all the reasons I had come to Australia. I am fairly sure they had never heard of The Triffids at all. They had come to Perth just because they were in Australia and presumably you couldn’t properly ‘do’  Australia without seeing Perth. 

 

But Karen at least seemed fascinated as I quoted Triffids lyrics over and over by heart. I described the scenery in my heart, the landscapes in my mind. I told her about Mandurah, and my desire to go there. I wanted to swim in that sea, I wanted to lie under that sun. So we agreed to take the bus there the next day. 

 

We drank lots of beer and all got back to the hostel late and woke everyone up getting back to our dorms. The next morning I woke up with a crashing hangover. The last thing I felt like was taking another bus journey. I crawled under a cold shower for about 15 minutes until I felt at least barely alive. 

 

Karen was in the kitchen, eating fruit and yoghurt with her friends. She looked up and said ‘G’day, mate. Do you want some breakfast?’ 

 

I shook my head and boiled up some strong coffee. I definitely couldn’t face eating. I had my sunglasses on although it was not particularly bright in the kitchen. 

 

We went into the city and found a bus for Mandurah. It was a scorching hot day. The sun felt like a laser burning through my retinas. My eyes were weeping so that it must have looked like I was crying behind my glasses. Karen grabbed my hand as she pulled me onto the bus. 

 

She chattered away. I felt I could barely talk, my tongue thick and stupid. We sat side by side on the bus as it crawled its way through the suburbs and out of the city. I had my Walkman with me and she asked if she could listen to The Triffids. I gave her the headphones and closed my eyes and leant back in the chair with my head throbbing away.   The trip took about 2 hours. I guzzled ice cold mineral water and took some more aspirin. My stomach felt awful and I was terrified the bus journey would make me sick. We weren’t talking much either and I was also worried that it felt awkward between us. 

 

Eventually the bus pulled into Mandurah. It looked like the town had grown some since 1961. But it was still a place dwarfed by its scenery. We found a local bus to take us down to the beach area. The first thing I realised of course was that the picture on the album cover was an aerial view, it could never look quite like that from the ground. But still, the sea was achingly blue, and the golden dunes wrapped around the huge bay for as far as the eye could see. We stepped onto the sands. She took my hand again. It was almost impossible to look out to sea, the sun was so bright. I took my shoes off and felt the hot sand sear my feet...

 

The children are walking back from the beach, Sun on the sidewalk is burning their feet, Washing the salt off under the showers, And just wasting away, wasting away, The hours and hours and hours.’

 

I had walked on this beach so many times in my mind. It was exactly and perfectly as I had  imagined it and yet, somehow, it was even better, something more. I even felt my headache receding. We walked quietly together but as she held my hand I didn’t feel the need to talk and it didn’t seem to matter that we weren’t talking. I was conscious of how hot her hand felt in mine. 

 

We seemed to walk for miles and miles out across the dunes. When we were far enough away, when the beach was completely deserted and it felt so desolate you could imagine the town of Mandurah disappeared forever, we stripped off down to our bathers and jumped into the warm salty water. It felt amazing. My head cleared. The sun blazed through my eyes and lit up my mind. Splashing in the water, I had never felt so completely alive. Eventually I got out of the water and went to sit on the beach with my back leant up against a palm tree. Karen followed me out and walked up to me. She bent down and pulled my sunglasses off. Then she knelt down on the sand in front of me and cupped my face in her hands and pulled me towards her. And then she kissed me. 

 

Then she kissed me. The sun blazed down on us. We were all alone in this world. The Gods smiled down on us. And I kissed her back. 

 

I remember the two of us, my arm draped around her shoulders, both of us leaning against the palm tree, drinking more Swan lager, watching the sun set across Mandurah bay. Just then, at that moment, the world could not have felt more complete, could not have felt more right. I knew this was the place I was meant to find. 

 

We finally hitched back to Perth as we had missed the last bus. We spent a few more days in the city. We went to see a band play at the University, and other bands in local bars. I fingered Triffids record sleeves in the local record store. The Triffids were not famous here, but people knew them. It was enough. Perhaps no other band has been so defined by its geography and now I had been here and seen it. It was enough. 

 

Karen and I decided to head across the centre of Australia, through Alice Springs and Ayers Rock. Her friends were going to fly across to Sydney. We all agreed to meet back up there. We found a couple of Irish guys who had a beat up old Jeep and agreed to split the petrol and travel across together. 

 

The Jeep had a top speed of about 45mph and the only air-con was taking the canvas roof off. We burnt up and baked but loved every minute. It took us 7 days to get all the way across to Sydney. 

 

I remember sitting drinking warm beer on folding canvas chairs in the middle of nowhere, Karen’s head leant on my shoulder. Just whiling away the hours and hours and hours...

 

I guess we both knew it couldn’t last. Our plans were different. She had a round the world ticket and her friends had ambitious plans to see most of the globe. We travelled together up the East Coast, but the day came when she had to leave. We said goodbye at Sydney airport and she cried as she waved from the other side of the departure gates. I felt sad, too, but it was hard to regret anything that had happened.

 

The Triffids ‘Best Of’ record was called ‘Love In Bright Landscapes’. In some alternative universe, it would have been a Greatest Hits, but in ours it was only a ‘Best Of...’. David McComb died in 1999. I couldn’t believe it when I saw his obituary in the news. There had been a low-key solo album in 1996 but no news of him since. Apparently he had had a heart transplant later in 1996, and died following minor injuries sustained in a road accident accompanied by acute rejection of his heart transplant due to heroin and alcohol abuse. I never guessed at any of that. Maybe, if you look closely, it was there in the songs all along. I don’t know. 

 

But in that alternative universe, of course, none of that happened. Instead I prefer to picture David McComb, as he wrote himself -

 

I’ve got a little place to myself, up on Stony Ridge, I got it made in the shade, I sleep in the afternoon, leave my bed unmade. 

Well it’s a long walk to the corner shop, In the January heat, It’s a big decision, To either think of you, Or not...

 

Whenever I hear the Triffids music, whenever I hear the words and I picture the places, I find myself right back there, sitting on Mandurah beach, and remembering, remembering love in bright landscapes... 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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