Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ghosts of Sunning Hill Farm

Yasmar is Ramsay backwards. It is, the guide says, a classic Georgian townhouse. Intact, though literally crumbling, in its original gardens. The wings where croquet and tennis were played excised to make a children's prison. When at last we are allowed to enter, hairnets on our heads under hard hats, the little girl who ran so cheerfully around outside begins to cry and cannot be consoled. It is the sadness in the air, it's the ghosts—not those of Ensign Bayley or Simeon Lord, nor the Ramsays and Learmouths, nor even Albert Edward Grace of Grace Bros. and his wife Selina, called Gypsy—but the ghosts of the young perpetrators, excised from their quite possibly dysfunctional families and incarcerated here after the war. They creep out of the walls like damp, they hang from the architraves, they linger in the pissy smell rising from the fireplaces with their elegant, Edwardian, wooden surrounds. They are thick in the bathrooms out back where the stables were, the girls' decorated with absurd pink and yellow sixties flowers, the boys' painted a vile orange. Thick as the webs of orb spiders in the weedy kitchen garden. The house at once so grand and so small, double doors opening in the hallway entrance to make a diminutive ballroom. Here the Court Sessions were held, here the children were condemned to whatever period of incarceration was to be theirs in the unseen, 1980s cell blocks behind the brick walls either side of the garden with its teardrop rose garden and rare exotics. Beautiful glass, asymmetric, bizarre, a mid-Victorian chivalrous fantasy out of Burne-Jones perhaps. As if Haberfield were the demesne of some knight errant who would right all future wrongs. Where did they sleep? The old ones, I mean, the house seems to consist only of living rooms. Greek revival, the hand-out says. 1856. Sandstone blocks, flagstone verandas with cast-iron posts, a Welsh slate roof. At the top of the hill, where my taxi base is now, stood Dobroyde House, the original Ramsay seat. They were big in the Linnean Society. They supported the Australian Museum, founded plant nurseries for the Garden Suburb. They're all buried in the family plot at St David's churchyard over in Dalhousie Street. Out front, in the heat and bustle of Parramatta Road at midday on a Saturday, you can see how the gardens were laid out, after the style of Queen Victoria's designer Louden, so as to hide the long, low, house from view. Now there are hurricane fences to confine those institutional ghosts, wailing still and forever in the bright sticky air as I mumble off down the hill towards Bland Street.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Whalan was an explorer too ...

If there is a god of cab-drivers - & despite my alleged secular humanism, I can't help but think there is - it's Hermes. Who is also, appositely, god of thieves. And much else: He was seen to be manifest in any kind of interchange, transfer, transgression, transcendence, transition, transit or traversal, all of which involve some form of crossing in some sense. This explains his connection with transitions in one’s fortune - with the interchanges of goods, words and information involved in trade, interpretation, oration, writing - with the way in which the wind may transfer objects from one place to another, and with the transition to the afterlife. It's a responsibility, I guess, but the insouciance of the god is an aid here, you can always drive off in search of the next soul wanting to be transmigrated. Sometimes I can feel the wings on my heels, or rather, the buds of them pushing against the leather uppers of my shoes; but other times I have feet of clay. These things worry me probably more than they should but, hey, it's confession time: last week I picked up a gay man from Melbourne at a hotel in North Ryde and took him to Annandale. He was a nice fellow, a bit detached, a bit abstracted, but good company and we chatted amiably all the way to ... well, he said Nelson and it wasn't until I'd dropped him off and was racing away down the street that I realised I'd left him in ... Trafalgar. It was only a block west of where he should have been & he had the number of his friends to call, but I still felt really bad. Like I should have gone back. And told him. And didn't. Last night I did something worse, I picked up two kids on Parramatta Road who were going to the Wentworth Hotel in Strathfield. The image of that pub floated before my mind, I said yeah, sure, I know where it is ... and off we went. The way young kids (I mean late teens, early twenties) talk these days is like a foreign language to me, they don't move their lips much, so I only understood about a quarter of what they were saying. One was a sporting star, he'd been to a tournament in Paris, tennis I think. Why they were going to a dreary pub in Strath I couldn't work out but took them there anyway. Looks dead as, doesn't it? said the sport's star in the front as I pulled up outside. You sure this is the Wentworth? I peered out, looking for the name I'd seen so many times from the train window. Couldn't find it. Yeah, I said, swiping the kid's debit card and relieving him of twenty odd dollars. See ya. It was as I drove away that I saw in my mind's eye the sign I couldn't find: Whalan's Hotel. Oh, shit. Taken them to the wrong place. Their faces wore the same dubious yet oddly docile look of the gay man's outside the house in Trafalgar Street. If the cab driver says so, it must be ... if Hermes says ... did I go back? And tell them that, not only had I taken them to the wrong place but didn't have a clue where the right one was? Like shit I did. I sped off to Parramatta Road and scooped up two extremely drunk Irishmen - only understood 1/16th of what they said - and took them to the City. For a discount. That was guilt, I suppose. Four dollars worth of guilt. Later, checking my directory, I found there's a Wentworth Hotel, probably fairly smart, in Homebush, a couple of suburbs past Strathfield. Perhaps that's where the kids were headed. Perhaps they made it ... god only knows.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


There was a huddle of, oh, about twenty people on the rank at Chifley Square, with the wind blowing in intermittent hard gusts and sudden showers skeltering down. I pulled in, the bloke at the head of the queue got in the back of the cab and said: Balmain. I paused, looking at that disconsolate group. Wonder if there's anyone else going to Balmain? I said. Don't care, he replied. Later I looked at his cab charge docket. He worked in the Premier's Department of the NSW government.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


So I'd just dropped off the second of two Russian women who'd been in town shopping, at Vaucluse, & was hanging off the end of the Bondi Junction rank, when a young fellow bent into the window & asked if I could take him? Course you're meant to direct these kind of fares to the head of the rank but nobody ever does unless it's someone just going around the corner ... & this fellow was going to the airport. He was from Armidale. Down for the day to see a specialist. About Workcover, Accident Compensation, whatever it's called. I've had a few of these, & their stories are always interesting, so I asked him what kind of work he did? Mental Health carer, he said. How do you get injured doing that? I asked. You get the same kind of head sickness as the head cases you look after, he said. And so unfolded his tale of woe. It began a few years ago with a patient who suicided. He was very close to this man, had cut him down twice, nursed him back after an attempt to blow his head off with a gun ... he'd seemed alright & then he'd heard his ex-girlfriend had found a new lover. Sat up all night drinking then did it. Now, over this last summer, he'd been afflicted with other patients blackmailing him, threatening to do the same if he went on holidays. One girl, after he returned from the holiday he did take, had in fact slashed herself, but not fatally. But what had really pushed him over the edge was the break-up of his own relationship. He felt there was something odd going on between his girlfriend and her uncle and, as he said, pushed her & pushed & pushed her until she confessed she'd been in a sexual relationship with him for the past five years. He'd said it was in the past & the person he loved was her, now, but she wasn't able to end it. She had left him. Who's the uncle? I asked. A sixty-two year old barrister, he said. Who had been grooming her since she was a child. Has a history of this kind of involvement. It had compromised his, the barrister's, relationship with both his sister and his daughter, though it wasn't clear if these had become sexual liaisons as well. This man is smart, & operates within the law, for instance waiting until his niece was of age before seducing her. As he was talking, he several times swept the dashboard top clean of dust with his hands. Sometimes he rubbed his face. He was telling me all the things he'd told the psychiatrist he'd just seen, but I had the feeling that I was more sympathetic than the shrink had been. He didn't know if he was going to get the time & money he needed or not. When I asked him if he was to return to nursing when he was well gain, he laughed. No way, he said. I'm going back farming. There was a distinction he made that interested me: between people he called Behaviourals & those with a genuine mental illness. The former are fucked up / spoiled / abused / neglected ... but not mentally ill. Highly manipulative. They were, by the sound of it, the reason why he was getting out. As we pulled up to the Terminal he told me some good news, about his sister's baby girl, two days old, that he'd seen on this trip to Sydney. Hope you're gonna be OK, I said, when he got out. He cracked a smile. Course I will, he said. Shit happens, right? You get over it. Thanks, mate ...