THE TROUT OPERA: A Preview
THE sheep on the hills froze and stared in the direction of the car, and for a moment the distant passage of the white sedan reflected across the watery films of their eyes like a parasite.
It was early spring, and snow clung to the mountains, and the snow was still deep inside the winds that came down into the valley. The winds flowed from the stands of snow gums higher up and through the blue eucalypts and then over blankets of buttercups and billy buttons until it poured across the treeless Monaro where it ruffled the long fleece of the sheep.
Sheep carpeted the valley and the lower terraces of the hills above the white car. They twitched and ticked and tore at the yellow grass to the dull music of blowfly and grasshopper and cicada, and the gunshot cracking of the giant lichen-bloomed boulders. Sheep like all sheep throughout the High Country, dulled and sleepy and unthinking until those startling eruptions of life - fox fang to underbelly, thunder or fire across the ranges, a car crackling its way up a dirt road through the middle of a valley.
They stood motionless now on the tiers of this amphitheatre, mouths locked and holding clods, pink tongues soiled and wet and twinkling with quartz. They trembled slightly. Some urinated. The car crept past, and by the time the sheep had bowed their heads again to graze, they had forgotten what had happened.
The two men in the car had read the name - Lampe – painted on a piece of tin on the gate down by the main road, and driven cautiously into the valley, through sudden carousels of grasshopper.
"This has to be it," said the driver, his right foot tentative on the accelerator, his city shoes at sea in the country.
His passenger looked out to the swarms of sheep easing up the foothills. They were the same russet brown as the grass, and for a moment it seemed the earth itself was alive and moving.
Grasshoppers clung to the bonnet and windshield and rear vision mirrors and the driver slowed down and still more of them attached themselves to the car, hundreds of them slow and drunk in the pale light, spined legs awkward and wings half unsheathed. Some wings and legs were already cooking on the radiator grille.
"Plague," the passenger said.
"Hmm," the driver sounded.
"Thought it was supposed to be quiet, the bush. This is like George Street at peak hour."
"Like a bloody horror movie. The boys are going to be real happy back at the garage."
They had left Sydney just before dawn in the government-issue car and had breakfast of bacon and eggs in a roadhouse halfway to Canberra. At the large plastic-topped table in the diner they had studied the files again and compared notes.
They possessed a single photograph of Wilfred Lampe taken in the 1940s. He was dressed in workshirt and trousers and braces and boots and wore a battered hat. In the picture he was sitting on the running board of a car with his chin in his hands, and he was as dirty as the soil.
"We can get there two ways," said the driver, finishing his coffee. His uncapped pen was poised over a photocopied map. "Via Jindabyne. Or the back way, out of Cooma."
"You decide," the passenger said.
"You could show some interest."
The passenger mopped up egg yolk off his plate with a piece of toast and looked out to their car. Two identical grey suit coats rested on hangars in the back seat.
"Of course I'm interested. What is it, another three hours drive? Maybe an hour there, do what we have to do, and four or five hours back."
"That's a half day's overtime," he said, dabbing his mouth with a serviette.
The driver stared at him across the table. Adjusted his tie. Returned to the maps and the paperwork.
"We've got to get this right," the driver said.
"And I've got to get back for dinner by eight tonight. Rockpool. You ever been? There’s a week’s pay right there, but what can you do?"
The coats rocked gently on their hangers as the car rounded Lake George. The driver turned the radio off as they entered Canberra. They passed through the capitol, down towards the skeletal flagpole of Parliament House, then south-west, to the Monaro Highway and Cooma.
The driver decided they would take the back road into Dalgety. An element of surprise, he thought. He did not share his strategy with his passenger.
The driver had been instilled with a sense of mission, despite the indifference of his colleague, as they drove through the order and alignment of Canberra. That feeling did not leave him all the way to Cooma. But it began to fall away when he turned the car onto the arterial road towards Jindabyne.
It was the thousands of ancient boulders scattered across the hills and fields, the remnants of some violent volcanic eruption. The driver could not connect with the randomness of it all, and how the weird configurations of granite blocks bore the vague shapes of things he knew and yet didn't know.
He saw the reclining bodies of goddesses and dinosaurs and Etruscan columns and temples, galleons and bridges and lighthouses and batallions of warriors. There were clusters of office blocks and container ships and pyres of wrecked cars. Then there were the silhouetted faces he may have recognised, and those of great figures in history - pioneers, bushrangers, leaders - and kilometer after kilometer of misshapen breasts and cracked heads and other dismembered body parts. In the rocks he saw everything and nothing, and it disturbed a distant part of him. The driver felt pangs of nausea, and attributed it to the settling of the diner eggs.
“Werid, eh,” was all the passenger said.
The sheep were omnipresent. Thousands of them. Eating and shitting around the monuments, their tiny minds unendingly registering the shift from shadow to sunlit grass.
It felt cold in the cabin of the vehicle on the drive to Dalgety. The men could hear the feint grinding of the coat hangers in the back seat.
They arrived at the village of Dalgety before they realised they were in it. The car had rounded a stand of pines when the road narrowed suddenly andthey were there, passing an abandoned garage and fuel pump, an empty tourist park that backed onto the Snowy River, a closed community hall. The driver stopped outside the Buckley's Crossing Hotel.
They stepped out of the car, relieved by the solid forms of the scattered town. The bricks and faded timbers. Glass and lacework. Even the geometrics of an abandoned tennis court down by the community hall, its old clay surface bearded with spring weed shoots.
The passenger stretched, looked down to the span bridge across the river, the sports oval and stockyards that reared onto the riverbank. A few bluestone and weatherboard houses hunkered behind trees on the low rise at the back of the hotel.
"This is it?" he said.
"This is it," the driver said.
The driver went into the pub and bought pies and sausage rolls…. and the two men went down to the river's edge and ate their lunch. They studied the river, silted with algae that collected in rust-coloured skirts at both banks. Further down, beyond the bridge, it forked around deposits of sand and pebble and disappeared into a tangle of blackberry bushes at the first bend. The tea-hued water did not appear to move. Its surface, from where they sat, was covered in paisley plates of rainbowed oil.
The passenger, his mouth half-full of pastry, said, "You're telling me this is the Snowy River?"
The driver chewed methodically and stared straight ahead. "The one and only," he finally said.
They both thought of poems and pictures from distant schoolbooks and of rearing horses dark with mountain rain and a cavalcade of other images and sounds and words learned in another part of the country where great rivers did not exist. It was what made the Snowy River so important to them as children, just to know they had one, a great river, flowing, roaring, somewhere. Everyone had to have a great river. One that coarsed and carved continually through their stories and imaginings. A great river gave strength to a country.
The driver went to speak, then couldn't.
"It's dead," the passenger said.
They sat by the river for another quarter of an hour, locked in the same confused silence, their imagined picture of the river not matching this strangled stretch of water in front of them. The passenger in particular felt he had been tricked, made a fool of by a long line of conspirators stretching back into his boyhood. He was momentarily angry at being fooled. Not at the sad state of the river. He had no concept of permanence.
The publican at the Buckley's Crossing, Jim Mitchell, observed them through the front windows of the hotel. In Dalgety they were used to public servants passing through. It'd been happening since - when? - the early 1900's, when the town was inspected and surveyed as the nation's potential capital. So much for that.
They regularly rolled through again during the construction of the hydro-electric scheme. Now, ironically, they'd blow in once a year to meet with the Snowy River protest groups who wanted them to give back the water they took away for the scheme. The world, he often said, was arse-up.
The driver down by the river, though. It was the first time Jim Mitchell had seen an official Sydney Olympics tie. The little coloured worm of the logo. It reminded him of a Dingo trout fly.
He mentioned the tie to Larry Brindlemere who popped into the pub for a six-pack of beer. Larry dropped by the general store for some fuse wire, and told Bill and Meredith Haskell that the logo apparently looked exactly like a Dingo fly. When Mrs Peat telephoned the store about refreshments for the weekend's performance of Sleeping Beauty in the community hall, she was told of the two men beside the river below the bridge, the tie, and the Olympics logo. By the time Larry had delivered the warming beers to his fence workers, farmers and their wives from Berridale to Paupong knew of the visitors.
Back in the car, the driver studied another smaller, hand-drawn map, and they drove out of town, across the wood slat bridge, towards the ranges.
A few kilometers later they found the gate.
"You know what sort of shape he's in?" the passenger asked.
"They didn't say."
"Does he know we're coming?"
"Why the questions all of a sudden?"
"I'm interested. I'm showing interest."
The driver drummed on the wheel with his fingers. "Not that I'm aware of. This is a get-to-know-you visit, that's all."
"Don't want the old boy to have a heart attack or something."
"Wilfred Lampe has a heart attack," the driver said, "and we're out of a job."
They drove for five minutes through Lampe's valley before they broached a rise and saw the house. The car idled and dropped air-conditioning fluid onto the dirt road. A smudge of smoke issued from the chimney at the side of the shack.
For several moments they looked down at Lampe's home. It was a ramshackle affair, the core of the house lost behind decades of additions, of verandahs and sheet tin lean-to's and tacked on wash-houses and storage rooms of differing materials, all this furred and spiked with stands of cut timber, pipes, guttering, old insulation bats and clutches of home-made fishing rods leaning higgledy-piggledy against the sprawling structure.
Scattered out from the dwelling were piles of bluestone riddled with weeds and rotting tyres and concrete laundry tubs and abandoned machinery. They could hear in the closed cabin of the car the tongue-click of a nearby generator in a shed, from which extended a low loop of black wire to a corner of the house.
The shells of several old cars were parked beneath a huge pepper tree thirty metres from the house, models that stretched back to the 1920s. A tomato bush flowered up through the flooring and around the steering wheel of a Plymouth. The roof of a black, tyreless Humber Vogue was tickled by the furthest overhang of the pepper tree.
Pale smoke continued to rise out of the chimney.
"He lives here?" the passenger said.
"He was born here."
"His whole life he's lived here?"
"He left twice," said the driver. "Once to Sydney, in the 1930s, to find his missing sister. The second, to Darwin, near the end of the war."
The passenger shook his head. "And that's it? Twice? In a lifetime?"
"All dead," said the driver.
"There's nobody? No next of kin?"
"One. A great-great-niece by the name of Amber Day. Twenty-six years old. I doubt he even knows she exists. We can't find her anyway."
The driver edged the car down the rise towards the house.
It had been less than two months since the committee appointed the two men to find the perfect candidate. Both thought the job would take little more than a week. But they had travelled to every capital city in Australia, to Fremantle and the Dandenongs and Eden and Wauchope and Emerald, visited dozens of nursing homes, hospitals and rural homesteads, one-bedroom flats overlooking the ocean, caravans on patches of scrub, and come up with nothing.
They had investigated personal connections, family and friends, and when that was exhausted, punted on elderly neighbourhoods, eyed old men and women in supermarkets, took notes in the bars of lawn bowling and bridge clubs.
Then someone found Lampe. An old clipping, yellowed, from a rural newspaper, cut out by the aunt of a staff member, sent in the post. Lampe, only five hours drive from the office, down in sheep country, snow and ice country, trout stream country.
They stopped the car near the house.
"And nobody's spoken to him," said the passenger, straightening his tie.
"He might be out."
"Ninety-six year old men don't get out that much."
They sat in silence in the car for a few moments, looking out at the grand disorder, and both wondered if this is how life unraveled itself ; if old man Lampe and all men were like the house ; the original little homestead of clean lines and fresh timbers obscured, slowly, by decades of accretion, until it disappeared.
They wondered if their search had come to an end, here, in a low valley on the Monaro. If the months of expeditions into the country of the elderly - the wafer-thin skin of hands, the open mouths of the sleeping, the perfume of sour antiseptic and through it death, that shape beyond the veil - was over.
It was Lampe, now, that they feared. He was their future.
"Let's get this over with," the driver said.
They stepped out of the white car. They opened the rear passenger doors, removed the identical coats from their steel hangers, put on the coats, and reached inside for their briefcases.
Both men perfunctorily adjusted their Sydney Olympics ties with their free hand.
The driver, out of habit, activated the car alarm, and its quick double beep sent grasshoppers wheeling.
They stood on the cluttered verandah of the house, peering through the gauze of the flyscreen. The driver tapped on the wood-frame of the door.
Beyond the flywire they could see the outline of a wooden table and a single chair. And the black curves of a kettle on the grate in the fireplace.
They opened the door and took a few steps inside. The room was rank with woodsmoke and food smells and they could hear a permanent buzzing somewhere in the gloom. Flies, or bees, or the muffled static of a radio.
Their eyes adjusted to the lack of light and suddenly the room appeared to them. There was a small gas camp cooker on a wooden bench to the left, and a tin sink filled with dishes and cutlery. Beside the sink an old fashioned meat safe. The four panes of the small window above the sink were sealed with sheets of newspaper.
To the right was a wooden sideboard with leadlight in the doors. In the centre of the leadlight were two frosted diamonds. Inside the cabinet, behind the diamonds, was the statuettes of a ballerina, a butter dish, and faceted rose glass salt and pepper shakers. Above the sideboard was a photograph of a faded steer freckled with fly spots.
At the end of the room stood the fireplace. Its sooted mantel was decorated on each side with hand-carved chickens. On top of the mantelpiece was a squat twin-key clock. From the far end of the room it resembled a judge's wig.
Slivers of light appeared between the wide slabs of hardwood that constituted the walls.
The buzzing got louder. It was stuffy inside the house, and the fire licked around the base of the old kettle. The passenger and the driver both felt the hand around their briefcase handles begin to sweat.
"Jesus," the passenger whispered.
On the kitchen table, like objects in a museum, was a single cream-coloured plate, and on the plate three slices of corned beef, bleeding beetroot, lettuce and a mound of chutney. A knife and fork rested on the food. Neatly placed to the right of the plate was a small teapot. Steam eased from the spout. Just beyond the teapot was an open jar of sugar, a tin of jam with the lid pulled back and serrated around the edge, and a bread plate.
The driver flicked his head slightly and they moved through the living room to the bedroom doorway.
Sheets of newspaper were laid out on the bare wooden floor around the bed. They could see the shape of a human being in the old mattress, and the indentation of a head on the single pillow. Behind the steel bedhead, looking out into the room, was the framed photograph of a woman. Her hair pinned in a bun, her eyes large and dark and almost without whites, her mouth a line of pale pencil. The pink of the lips had faded away.
It was the eyes that held the two men at the doorway to the room. They were the eyes of a plain woman looking coldly into a future of hard labour and occasional tragedy. They were eyes that would be unsoftened by firelight, that followed the crazed stitching of sheep tracks in dew all the way to the distant mountains, and could detect the onset of snow. Eyes that were prepared for everything, out there, in the world, beyond the slab house in the valley.
The stench the room held was almost unbearable.
"Let's try out the back."
The buzzing had entered their heads and they could feel flies or bees brushing their suit jackets or the hair of their wrists and their skin crept at the touch. They passed down a narrow hall to a washroom at the back of the house then re-entered the blinding sunlight of mid-morning.
'He's not here," the passenger said, breathing deeply. "Let's go."
"But the fire. The tea."
They stood together on the back staircase and when their eyes adjusted again they looked over a waist-high field of weeds and grasses. The sunlight illuminated dozens of tiny dandelion globes.
From the stairs the driver could see the end of the valley, a pinched cul-de-sac of boulders and dead timber and what appeared to be the charred remains of a hut, its long-fallen roof struts and slab walls fallen around a corrugated iron chimney.
This place, the driver thought. It was too lived in. As with people, places too had a finite life. Lampe's valley, the soil, the car bodies and the trees, were at the end of a long cycle. The driver could feel it, and smell it in the air. A decay that attached itself to the fine fibres of his suit.
"He's not here," the passenger repeated.
But neither of them could escape the fact of the meal on the kitchen table. And the steam. The life of the steam.
"I'll check in the shed," the passenger said.
He disappeared around the side of the house. The driver didn't move. He could feel cold metallic sweat collecting under his arms. Up on the hill to the east, he could see a handful of sheep looking down at him. A sudden breeze rattled the dandelions, and he could feel the cold working its way inside his suit, and then he heard a human moan.
"Lampe?" he said, almost to himself.
He stepped down into the yard. The weeds reached up to his black leather belt.
He waded through the weeds. Spore clung to his trousers and unseen nettles bit his socks and cuffs. The weed stalks hissed with his movement.
A flash of colour. He saw it. Red. Thirty feet away. He walked faster, towards the patch of red.
The driver was less then ten feet away when he saw the old man, laying on his side, a spotted hand clutching at vivid green weed stalks and grass. His eyes were open and milky at the rims. His white hair dishevelled and flecked with seeds and spore. One of his braces had slipped from his shoulder. His red checked shirt, buttoned at the neck, pulled tightly at his throat.
A dark line of beetroot juice stained a deep wrinkle that ran down the left side of the old man's mouth.
"Christ." The driver dropped his briefcase and knelt down beside Wilfred Lampe. He put a hand on Lampe's arm, and brushed the hair off his forehead. Then, without understanding, he nursed the old man's head.
"Get a fucking ambulance," the driver shouted into the valley.
They were two men from different ends of the century, inside a womb of weeds, both of them held in a halo of insects.
When the helicopter lifted from the earth and hovered above his property and then moved out across the Monaro Wilfred Lampe knew two things ; that he was dead, finally, and that he had at last solved the greatest riddle of his life.
That death, and the solving of the riddle, should coincide, registered no surprise within him. They were a single occurrence. It was as it should be.
He was, at last, inside the mind of his beloved trout. A place he had tried to enter for almost ninety years. With this, the rising from the earth, he was seeing with their eyes.
Lampe could see patches of blue sky and could feel a strong vibration running through his body but could hear nothing. He suddenly felt very cold. He was rising. Rising. Seeing, as he knew trout did, through the surface of the water to the outside world. And seeing, simultaneously, the river stones, the reeds, the submerged logs, even a clear picture of himself, reflected back off the underside mirror of the river.
Shadowy figures hovered over him, blocking and unblocking the sky, and he knew immediately these were little puffs of cloud crossing the sun, or pieces of timber rushing down the river with the snow melt, or maybe the odd specimen of human detritus that occasionally found its way into the Snowy. He had, as a boy, seen a steamer trunk sail past under the Dalgety Bridge.
He could see himself interrupting his lunch of cornerd beef and beetroot. Remembering an old washing machine motor out by the back fence, he had risen with the aid of his cane and set out to find it. Might yield a part or two, he thought, to fix that dodgy generator. He caught a toe in some undergrowth, and had gone down into a bed of weeds.
I feel no pain, he thought, looking up into the luminescent cathedral roof of arced stalks. They always said the Lampe's were made of wire, didn't they? But he was so tired, as wire, too, gets tired, and funnily, as he lay there in the soft grass, he thought of his tea getting cold on the table. The sweet hot tea cooling inside the teapot, and then the metal of the pot cooling down, and the fire in the grate sputtering to nothing, then the coals cooling, and the big black kettle becoming cold as the granite in the fields at night.
Wilfred Lampe could see all this as his body vibrated and he rose higher.
He was happy, now, to be dead, having solved the riddle. For ten years he had gone to bed each night no knowing if he would wake up. He was comfortable with that. In the room he had been born in, with his mother looking over him.
How they had pushed him to go into the nursing home at Berridale. Wilfred Lampe had not been to Berridale since 1927, when his grandfather had died, and they had gone to bury him, and sell the orchard, and remove his giant hive of Italian bees. They told him he had a friend in the nursing home in Berridale. Cecil Sweetwater. Do you remember Cecil? You were quite a duo. But he didn't remember Cecil Sweetwater. Only lying on his back in the orchard, his belly filled with raspberries and plumbs, looking up into the heavily laden fruit trees, the colours like fireworks.
I'll die at home, he told them. I don't want to die sitting in an armchair with Cecil Sweetwater in my ear. Who's Cecil Sweetwater?
They came out to the valley to check on him. In 1983 the area constable restricted his license to a 20-kilometer radius from Dalgety. They reduced it to ten kilometers in 1993. That just got him from the front gate into town, to the General Store or the Buckley's Crossing Hotel, or Our Lady Star of the Sea on the hill. They had joked with him. If Haskell's store was a bit further up the main street, Wilfred Lampe would starve to death. He hadn't driven the Humber Vogue in a year.
He caught glimpses of the sky. And could see everything reflected back to him.
Dorothea's face appeared. You said you'd come back. You promised. When I ran along the platform at Cooma, and you pressed the bunch of wildflowers I gave you against the glass carriage window, you mouthed - I promise. I waited, though. More than sixty years. I waited. And now I can see you clearly. Now you're with me again.
The rising. Wilfred Lampe was rising to the surface.
The old man's body vibrated as the helicopter peeled away from Lampe's property, threw wave after wave of warm air at the earth, sending grasshoppers into violent and unfamiliar patterns of flight, scattering the attendant sheep, shaking the ramshackle house, the china ballerina trembling in its cabinet, rusted nails aching in the roof, the smoke from the dying fire dissipating in a dance of madness. The pepper tree was lashing itself, cutting itself up, and the smell of pepper infused the air. The whole valley beat like a heart.
Across the rise Tom and John Crisp were the first to hear and then see the helicopter arrive and then leave. They had no thoughts on it, because they could not comprehend it.
Larry Brindlemere and his fence workers were sitting on bales of wire, finishing their beers, when they heard the thud of the rotors. They stared silently in the direction of the sound, unmoving.
Mrs Peat heard it also, taking a tray of golden scones from her Kooka. She was pleased with the hue, and could already see them neatly arranged in their wicker baskets during interval at the performance of Sleeping Beauty. She placed the hot tray on a bench and cocked an ear. She didn't remove her hen-faced mittens.
Jim Mitchell was halfway through fitting a new keg when he heard the helicopter. He stepped out onto the verandah of the hotel, leant on the railing and checked the sky. He saw nothing but clouds as thin and ordered as fish bones.
Down on the river, a few kilometers from Dalgety Bridge, Bill Hourigan had just found a nice spot on the river bank where the Snowy fluted into a narrow pool. He had fished the river all his life, had never seen it so anguished. It was harder to find the pools. The whole river was being squeezed out, to the sea.
He knew on this day he would catch nothing. He hadn't landed a decent trout in several years. But he loved working the rod and line, he loved the rhythm of it, now that he was alone and getting old and the children had moved away.
Bill Hourigan checked the flies he had made at the kitchen table that morning and had just begun casting, his shoulders and arms and wrists aching, not yet used to the action, when he heard the helicopter and, looking over his right shoulder, saw it lift into the air above what must be the old Lampe place.
He stopped casting, let the fly drift on the water's surface, and watched as the helicopter banked and headed towards the south of the town and right over him, over the sole fisherman beside the pool. The shadow of the helicopter darted over the silt and pebble and pool and the fists of blackberry bushes and then it was gone.
They would all know, soon enough, that Wilfred Lampe broken through the surface, been hauled up and into the sky, and disappeared.
The old man woke up in a white bed with white sheets tucked up across his chest in a small white room.
It was night and the room was dark. There was one window on the right wall of the room.
He knew he was dead. That it was all over. That this was death, this feeling of being half asleep, and half awake. He could smell citrus.
A pale, milky light was reflected through the window and onto the white wall in front of him. Sometimes, long ripples of sharper light moved down off the ceiling and across the white wall.
He recognised them. They were ribbons of sunlight through the water of the river. He was in the cool waters of the river, and he could see everything and everyone reflected back on the silver plate of the surface.
Wilfred Lampe closed his eyes.