On Monday I set out on a mission. A little after lunch I packed my bags and got in the car and set off for the Western District of Victoria.
It was an overcast and cold day. Driving down the Princes Freeway to Geelong I was surrounded by several lanes of busy traffic, all trying to keep to the restrictive speed limit of 100 km/h – the cops are murder here. The trip to Geelong took just under an hour. Once in Geelong I followed the traffic, a street directory perched on my knees as I tried to figure out the best way out of town and onto the Hamilton Highway. I turned right into the street the directory indicated and followed the sparse traffic as it headed west. As the suburbs thinned around me the traffic dropped away to, until, when I reached the open road of the Hamilton Highway there was no-one in front of me I could see, and in the rear-view mirror, no-one behind.
The Hamilton Highway is straight and mostly flat. The road undulates a little with the terrain, small dips and hollows and gentle curves. For the most part the landscape surrounding is flat to, and bereft of vegetation. There are open fields where sheep graze and the occasional farm appears. Here and there small bumps like pimples erupting from the ground. As I drove I listened to my CD’s (Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, The Pernice Brothers) and looked at the landscape around me. Somehow it reminded me of France, a thought that I couldn’t explain. It was green like France, and in parts with the recent rain, quite lush. The buildings were different though – old France is stone and brick two story dwellings clustered together. Here, typical of Australia, the homes are spread out, weatherboard and often with the typical Australian verandah. The trees are different too – here unmistakably eucalypts, tall, spreading gum trees growing by the side of the road. Still, I could not shape the sense of familiarity. Perhaps it was the weather I mused, my foot on the accelerator, a black road ahead of me and the white lines rapidly passing me by.
All the way from Geelong I had endured a range of weather that had me putting on and taking off my sunglasses. It was a dreary day, tall columns of low cumulus, stained dark at the edges with brooding rain. In between though the sun would appear, sparkling and intense. It was rainbow weather then, behind in the rear-view mirror I would see rainbows appear in the moist atmosphere. Then I would drive into an overcast patch again, the rain would fall, and my dark glasses would come off.
It was like that all the way. I drove through Inverleigh, Cressy and Berrybank, places I had only ever heard of before and seen as places on a map. I drove through Lismore and at Derrinallum I stopped for fuel. Here was an old fashioned servo. I got out of the car as he came to serve me. As the tank filled he cleaned my windscreen. “What’s the weather going to do?” I asked him. “Barometers all over the place,” he told me. “Has to settle down some time.” I nodded my head. Weather for me is a matter for convenience, but in the bush it is life and death. We chatted for a bit longer and then I hopped in the car to continue my journey. “Have a great day,” he told me, and meant it.
It was getting on towards 4 now. All the sunshine had gone. The clouds seemed lower than before and more bruised. It was dark and gloomy and not a day to be out driving. I continued on the road alone. All the way I had seen little traffic, just the way I liked it. I had passed two cars but others I had approached had turned off the road before I reached them.
From Derrinallum I drove through the little township of Darlington. Next stop was Mortlake, my destination, and I was by now counting the minutes and the kilometres as they went by. The music had stopped. I looked out over the flat fields and the dry stone walls that separated them. It was pretty I imagined, especially when the weather was better. Ahead I saw a car towing a 25 foot yacht, far from the ocean, and passed him. Around me the fields spread, vast, like Australia, and in that moment I got another sense of the size of this place and was filled with a strange but fleeting sense of pride – as if size did matter.
Then in the distance I saw the beginning of Mortlake. The beginning of it is a row of Cypress trees down each side of the road heading into town. I drove through the middle of them, the branches over-arching and turned to see a plaque by the side of the road: The Avenue of Honour. Each tree represented someone from the local district who had gone to the first war, like they have in Ballarat and other places.
Then I was in Mortlake proper. I drove through the round-about and continued on before doing a u-turn in the broad main street. I stopped at a pie shop, Clarkes, famous apparently throughout the district. And I remembered that Berni had told me of these. Inside I asked the very friendly woman behind the counter where the best beds in town where. Down at the corner, she told me, at the hotel. I bought a pie then, a late lunch, and thanked her. Somehow she was exactly how I expected a friendly country woman to be like.
I checked in at the hotel, asking as I did where the cemetery was. I quickly unpacked in my room and then climbed in the car again and set out for the cemetery.
The cemetery was at the end of a narrow and very straight road off the highway about 5 kilometres out of town. As I drove down I noticed a white car had turned in behind me. As I got out of my car the other car pulled up and a man in his mid sixties, red faced and a little stout, climbed out. He nodded his head at me.
“How’re you goin’?” he asked.
“Good mate, you?” I responded.
He walked across to a small grave that was festooned by tinsel and little windmills on sticks poking from the ground. I imagined the grave held a child, a grandson perhaps, and this was the doting grandfather who came often to visit the grave of the grandson who had been the delight of his life. I looked away.
The cemetery was in sections. I didn’t know where to look. I picked my way between the graves, looking at inscriptions and moving on. The ground was sodden with rain, and cut up in places where vehicles had been. There were deep puddles I had to jump across, and little birds flitting from tombstone to tombstone, black and white, that looked like willy-wagtails but made a sound different to what I remembered. The old man left. “Bit wet,” he said to me. “Yep. Reckon you need the rain though,” I said, the ‘townie’ as Berni always called me venturing an opinion on matters agricultural. “Yeah, it’s good rain,” he said, “need good spring rain too.” Then he was off.
I was alone. For the first time ever I felt a sense of eerieness in a cemetery. There was nothing around me but the birds and a flock of sheep in the field next door. Overhead it was gloomy and the sky was darkening quickly. I realised I was the only one living here, the only one above-ground but surrounded by dead, a small town of them and some of them dead for over a hundred years.
I went from grave to grave, reading of a family called Absalom, and then in graves adjoining of two children of the same name dead three years apart of an ‘accident’. I imagined the grief of the parents at losing two children (‘a gift from God’) like that. I went backwards and forwards and could not find the grave I was looking for, until finally it dawned on me that I was in the wrong cemetery.
I got in the car and quickly drove to the highway. It was just past 5pm. It was getting dark and the sky looked more threatening than ever. I drove back towards town and then through it, turning left after it and headed towards Warrnambool. About 9-10 kms down the road I found Ellerslie, not a town as such but a settlement of houses, a hall and a school. Blink an eye and it was gone. I didn’t blink an eye though: I turned in. I drove down a narrow street and stopped by the front gate of a house. I opened the window and called out to the woman there: can you tell me where the cemetery is? Ahead and on the right, she told me. That’s the way I went.
I found the cemetery and parked my car off the road in front of it. It was small, perhaps a couple of acres in size, and bound in by a small cyclone wire fence. I jumped the fence and entered.
Here it was wetter than before. With every step the ground squelched beneath my feet like a sponge that has soaked up too much water. It seeped into my shoes and then I felt the cold water in my socks as I walked through the grass looking at the incriptions on the graves. Then, finally, I found it.
I didn’t know what to think. I looked the grave, dark marble enclosed with a tombstone inscribed with the love of her parents and her brothers and sisters: Berni, the woman I had loved once. In a jar on the stone there was a fresh yellow rose. Her mother, I imagined.
I looked at the grave while a fine misty rain began to fall and settle on the dark stone. I had come all this way and now I wondered what I was meant to do. I had thought I might say something but the words that came to mind seemed inadequate, and wrong. Somehow it felt unreal, as if she wasn’t really there, as if she couldn’t be there. I knew she was though.
I looked up from the grave and looked around me. Somehow it seemed wrong. There is nothing as lonely as a country cemetery, but this one seemed more miserable than most. As far as the eye could see there was no sign of anything living. The sky was dark, the ground sodden and the rain fell. It was miserable. Maybe in the summer when the sky is blue and the graves lit by sunshine and the birds twitter, maybe then this place might be more cheerful. Maybe. In any case it didn’t seem the place for someone like Berni. Here she was, the woman I had loved, surrounded by dead people. Old dead people, as if that mattered, as if there was a subterranean community of dead people. Hers was the most recent grave, 2001, but most where of a time far before then.
I looked back to the grave and began to speak while the rain fell on me. “I loved you,” I said, “and I always loved you.”
“I wish I had have known how you felt. I would have done anything to have prevented this.” I thought about my words: they were true. If only I had known, I would have dropped everything to save her, if I had that power. I smiled a very small smile. “Maybe we’ll meet again some day. I hope you’re happy now, and at peace.”
I stood and looked at the grave again and then pressed two fingers against my lips and pressed them onto the gold lettering of her name. I looked again, taking in her grave thinking, I will not come this way again. And then I turned and clomped my way out of the cemetery.
At the car I turned the rear demister on, and the heating up a notch. I turned the wipers on and the headlights and pulled away, taking a long, last look at the cemetery. I drove down the road and turned right onto the highway, driving carefully in the misty rain as if I had been infected by something at the cemetery. It was dark and miserable and I returned to Mortlake and to my room with some take-away.
I didn’t sleep much. She seemed to be in my head. I don’t know what purpose I had in coming – it had just seemed something I had to do. I’m not sure if I was seeking some kind of closure. Or if I just wanted to pay my respects. I think most likely I wanted to see her world, where she lived and grew up, to see the places she had told me of so many times. And I wanted to see where she ended. It was a journey I had dreaded in a way while being driven to take it. By going there I was confronting tragedy. This could not be a happy journey. I was going to visit the grave of a woman I had loved, and who had taken her own life. It was something I had to face.
I was up early the next morning. It was very cold. I showered and packed and was in the car by a little after 8. As I drove down the misty road and through the avenue of honour on my way home I slipped a CD in the player, ‘Yellow Brick Road’, and the first song – ‘Funeral for a Friend’.