Good Reading : July 2001
Extract from Gilgamesh by Joan London (Picador) bookbites T here were two of them, two young men, dressed alike in black narrow-brimmed hats and black coats, longer and blacker than those Australians wore. They looked like emissaries or the members of a religious sect, but in fact they’d simply used the same Arab tailor to outfit themselves for this journey, in haste and without knowing what to expect. They were hot. Their coats were powdered with red dust. They were riding in the cab of an old Ford utility with a local carrier called Bickford. Behind them they could hear their suitcases sliding around with the milk cans, and the incessant barking of Bickford’s spidery black dog. Where had they come from? The cab was filled with the foreign smell of them, Bickford knew it, he had served in Egypt in the AIF. It was in the food, the soap, the skin of the women, something spicy and sweetish that got into your sweat, your shit. Close up they were young, mid twenties. Officer age and class. One was wiry, dark as a Gyppo, the other fat, spoke like a Pom. What had brought them here? They weren’t the type to work in the timber mills. Out of the corner of his eye Bickford watched the fat one wipe the sweat from his hands with his neckscarf. Soft hands like that on a man turned his stomach. But Aram was here, wedged beside him. Leopold opened his eyes and studied his friend’s profile. He had spent every day of the past year with Aram. Everything they saw or did was shared. Sometimes he wondered if the world he saw was the one reflected in Aram’s dark gaze. In the dream however he had been alone. What did they think when they were deposited with their suitcases in the driveway of the Sea House? In this light the apparition of an English manor house rising out of the wilderness was almost surreal. They stood looking around them at the tennis courts and rose beds and terraced lawns, while beyond, like a country to be conquered, lay miles of uninhabited bush. Bickford took his tobacco pouch from the pocket of his army shirt and started rolling a cigarette. The fat one tried to offer him five shillings for the ride, but Bickford shook his head. Laurel and Hardy, thought Bickford as he watched them set off down the highway. Jekyll and Hyde. He lit his cigarette and headed for the bar. He wouldn’t have said no to a beer if they’d offered to shout him one, but they were foreigners and didn’t know the way to do things here. The black dog lay down to wait outside the bar. In this light the apparition of an English manor house rising out of the wilderness was almost surreal. An English country woman, authentic in every detail, The sun had gone down. Clearings were darkening around giant dead trees. The fat passenger, shouting above the din of the cab, asked Bickford if he knew a family called Clark in the area. Bickford said nothing for a mile or two, trying to put two and two together. At least he knew they weren’t from the Bank. ‘Old Clarkie, he passed away last year,’ he shouted back at last. 54 Leopold was suddenly weary. He shut his eyes for a moment. He had been here before, a long time ago, he was re-entering a scene. The rattling cab, the barking dog, some horror being revealed as the light faded on an empty road. The same landscape he could swear, the blocked-out horizon, the stricken trees, the desultory cows. The end of the world. He must have dreamt this, or he was dreaming now. brogues, tweeds, pearls, right down to the spaniel yapping at her heels, gave them directions to the Clark farm with raised eyebrows, faintly amused. ‘I wouldn’t call it a farm exactly,’ she said, ‘not these days.’ She waved down at the valley. ‘If you meet young Edith on the track, tell her to hurry up. She waits on tables here.’ What was her accent? Not country, not English at all. Australian genteel? She had a good-looking girl’s face gone puffy, and girlish shoulder- length blonde hair. She studied the cut of their coats in the twilight, her head to one side. ‘You can always stay here, you know,’ she said. ‘It’s off-season, we’ve plenty of rooms.’ Down the brick stairway they went, following the gravel path, into the Honeymoon Gardens, famous throughout the South West, though they did not know that. They thought they were walking into an oasis. Joan London ?