Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe
Book Sample


It had rained for three days solid, in some places the creek had already burst its banks; she’d waited for nightfall, a night with no moon. No-one can say how spectacularly unsuccessful the launching was, no-one was there on that dark night to bear witness. Though the remnants of the canoe were found the following day wrapped crazily around an overhanging branch almost a kilometre downstream, there is little point speculating on how much of the journey was made on the surface as hoped and how much of it tumbling in the putrid waters beneath. The body itself outdistanced the canoe by a kilometre and a half and was recovered two days later wedged between the root of a tree and the grey mud of the bank. It wore, ridiculously, the uniform prescribed; the rabbit skin hat still held in place by a chin-strap, the jacket still neatly buttoned.

I was asked into town to sign some papers and I drove there dazed and shaken. Patterson himself seemed genuinely upset. It was, we both knew, a strange and futile end to a strange and futile saga. Little was said, little could be said; I saw the body, identified her as Jodie and drove back home with the image of her blood-drained face and quiet closed-forever eyes before me.

The rain wouldn’t stop, it came down in endless thin silver ropes, pelting the roof and bursting out of the gutters; it was washing everything, washing everything clean, the whole sad sorry story, across the paddocks and ruins, from trickles to rivulets to the creek into the far-off sea. That night, as I sat down at my table and prepared to break the news to Michael, I knew, at last, that my days here were done.

Michael! Mad, bad, cockeyed Michael! That it should all come to this! All the twisted lines of our journey, the scratches, the cuts, the bruises, were marked on her face. But serene, so serene, ghost-white and pure. Michael! Oh Michael! That it should all come to this!


I loaded the car up with beer from the pub in town and pulled the table up that night to within arm’s reach of the fridge. Empty cans littered the table, the rain drummed hard on the roof. Hours passed, they could have been years. I couldn’t write to Michael, there were no words to fix the image, wrap it in sympathy and carry it safely to him: six screwed up pieces of paper lay strewn across the floor. I raised myself unsteadily from the table, stood at the back door and looked out at the rain. It had already washed the gravel from the path leading down the back to the creek and the paddocks beyond lay shrouded in darkness and damp. She’d have passed by here, just down there at the end of the path, beyond the murky shaft of light, where I could hear the sound of the boiling, rushing water even now. Was she standing, head held high as instructed, or already tumbling, groping, lost? I’d have been sleeping, the rain on the roof. And she passed by softly: I couldn’t have heard.

I put on my coat, took up the lamp, and walked out into the rain. I made my way down North Court and trudged to the top of the mountain of rubble that overlooked the Square. It was a lake now, a low lake of muddy water in which a few persistent gorse bushes still stood. Nothing to suggest the summer evenings of suffused orange light, the clinking of glasses and the hubbub of talk; those long magical evenings now a lifetime away. Grey sky, grey mud, grey water, drenched by an unending rain. I walked down the eastern side of the hill towards the few houses that still stood, miraculously, north-east of the Square. My boots were caked with mud, my steps were leaden. Thick weeds, gorse and thistle had long ago claimed the streets; they slapped at my thighs, tore at my flesh and wet my trousers through.

I walked into the lounge room of an empty house; it reeked of dogs, bird droppings and damp. A bird flew out the window, leaving the echo of its flapping in the room. I remembered Michael, and our meeting in the abandoned house on West Court all those years ago. Flies buzzed in zigzag patterns around the broken light fitting and the dogs stretched and yawned on the burnt-brown lawn. That summer was the worst, the paddocks around us were dead grass and dust; the streets melted, the gardens withered, a heat shimmer wobbled and distorted everything in the middle distance and beyond. Days on end spent waiting for night, nights on end spent dreading the days, we cowed beneath an open sky, hugging the walls and shadows, listening with one ear cocked to the distant rumblings whose source we could still not name. He was her father, I was in love with her, all my words were servant to these truths.

I trudged back home, my boots and the shoulders of my coat soaked through, and lit a fire in the grate. Steam rose from the boots on the hearth and the coat flung over the chair: it hung below the ceiling like a cloud threatening rain. Rain, rain, everywhere the rain. It battered the roof and dripped with an insistent rhythm into the saucepans. I sat at the table and gazed again at the objects assembled there: a piece of glass from a broken beer bottle, a chipped house brick, a charred rabbit bone. I arranged and rearranged them on the table before me, imploring them to tell a story, to reconstitute themselves into a whole. But they remained stubbornly themselves; inert, mute, adrift. So are these few reliquiae all that I have salvaged from the ruins of those years? Small things, absurd, earth-encrusted things. Had I not come back to dig them out they would still be sleeping peacefully where they should be, in the all-forgiving earth.


Later that night I awoke in the chair; the fire was cold, a heavy pounding echoed in my head. I’d woken with her image before me again, the cold white face, the matted hair, her stomach so flat that it almost looked shrunken; the great fertile hump she’d been carrying, gone. I caught Patterson’s eye; he half-shrugged. The baby hadn’t been found.

With that image before me I couldn’t sleep, and I spent the next hour or more outside gathering up old bricks and rubble, anything I could find, to make a low dyke across the back yard which I hoped would save me at least until morning. The creek down there was spreading now, bits of rubbish floated past and the stench was unbearable. Across the paddocks the puddles had swollen into lakes, the labyrinth of rabbit warrens flooded; the rain lashed the dead grasses furiously. I lit the fire again and pulled the blanket tight around me, so many things clawing at my head. The tangled barbed-wire and splintered wood wrapped around a tree; Jodie, growing ever-flatter in my mind, a cigarette paper laid out on a slab, white and so insubstantial that a mere puff of breath might blow her away; the tiny blue-grey bundle of flesh tumbling in the filthy waters, God knows, still tumbling now past Konagaderra, Wildwood, Bulla to the Bay and on into the soundless sea.


Yes, I came back, only fools do that, to live among these ruins in a slapped-up shack of leftovers. And for my foolishness I’ve become the only witness to the final act, last spectator in an empty theatre, last left squinting when the lights come on, the only one to take the final image out into the street. You’re the only one of the old group we could find, said Patterson, as if for that I should be pitied. And probably I should.

The earth can only take so much rain and as the night wore on I felt it gulping ever-closer to its limit. The bridge was gone, my car was drowned; I was on an island surrounded by a sea of dirty water. I arranged the objects on my table again. I emptied the saucepans and mopped the floor. I couldn’t sleep. I opened a can, lit the lamp, pulled the table up by the fire and write.


It was a mistake from the first. In the early days a much talked about and heralded mistake but a mistake nonetheless. I was a victim of the publicity, I can’t pretend otherwise. I was if anything its greatest victim, harbouring to the very end my belief that it would, despite the setbacks, soon or at least one day all work out as planned.

The country was changing, the population exploding, we were no longer a few fly specks on a huge uncluttered map. Our cities were becoming enormous, unsightly and ever-expanding blotches; my own, my birthplace, south of here, Melbourne, the most unsightly and expanding of all. So it didn’t take much for some new upstart town planners, the ink hardly dry on their diplomas, to convince the civic authorities that a new approach to urban planning was needed. It was all very well to be encouraging new housing development in the outer suburbs to lessen the pressure on the city’s resources but, they argued, there was really no point in simply tacking one new development onto the back fence as it were of the one just completed; far from encouraging moves away from the city this was simply grafting the new population onto it. We must, they said, look ‘further out.’

This reasoning was all very well, and there was a good deal of sense in it. But, with the benefit of hindsight, they made two fundamental mistakes. First, in their great enthusiasm, they looked too far out; and second, they looked too far out in the wrong direction.

Using perhaps no more than a slide rule and the logic of their fanciful theories, they fixed on a point over fifty kilometres north of the city to establish the first ‘New Estate.’ It mattered little to them in what kind of landscape this Estate stood: those who ended up living there were always convinced that the whole thing had been planned and approved on the basis of a red pin stuck on a wall map in some obscure city office. But the north it was: past the tired pot-holed suburbs on the city fringe and the brick veneer additions of recent years, past the For Lease factories with bare asphalt car-parks marked out in white, the used car lots, the wrecking yards, past the miserable market garden plots full of cabbage gone to seed and on through the flat and never-changing expanse of paddocks, dead trees, broken barbed-wire fences, bored cows, hang-gutted horses, and here and there the rusted shell of an abandoned car. Forty hectares of overworked and abandoned farmland, half encircled by a small creek with steep-sided banks, pockmarked with rabbit holes and decorated by gorse and Scotch thistle; this was the spot to which the surveyors were sent armed with their mysterious three-legged instruments, weaving in and out of the gorse bushes with tape measures in their hands and hammering in their orange marker pegs in a strange and almost incomprehensible array of patterns.

The Estate was built in record time and the official opening was attended by many dignitaries, the most important of whom, the Premier no less, unveiled the small bronze plaque that up until the destruction still stood on the grass plantation in the centre of the Square. It was all a cause for great civic pride at the time and those of us who were there, the first residents, guinea pigs if you like, felt that we were taking part in an event of great national importance. Speeches were made, a large marquee covered the Square and beer, wine and savouries were served. I hope, said the Premier, one hand on the podium to prevent his speech being carried off by the wind, that this will become the model of things to come.

And yes, despite its questionable location and the hurry to completion, despite everything that has happened since, the Estate was a model of the new planning ideas at the time and was, in its way, absolutely unique. It was designed as a kind of self-contained village; a main Square in the centre surrounded by shops, a bank, a post office and so on, with four streets radiating out from this Square to each point of the compass. Each of these four streets then crossed a ring road some forty metres out from the Square with all except one terminating on the other side in three bubble-shaped cul-de-sacs or courts. The fourth or eastbound street crossed the ring road and continued on for a little over a kilometre until it met up with the main highway to the city - the only access, by road, to the Estate. Four further cul-de-sacs or courts branched off from the ring road, making seven in all.

Map from Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe

So that the whole thing resembled, if seen from the air and with a touch of imagination, the great wheel of an old sailing ship bound for exotic new lands. The four streets and seven courts were named according to their corresponding positions on the compass; North Street, East Street, North Court, North-East Court etc.... And they all, including the ring road, were lined with houses - two hundred and twenty in all and all identical in design: three bedroom solid brick with front yard, back yard, driveway and garage. On the basis of four and a half persons per household, the designers had calculated on a population of nine hundred and ninety people.

It was, to anyone’s way of seeing things, an extraordinary achievement. Out of the bare inhospitable paddocks a new village had arisen; neat, clean and impeccably ordered, far from the unkempt sprawl of the city. There was one small town a long way to the south-east and a slightly larger one a little closer to the north, but aside from that we seemed as far away from civilisation as is these days humanly possible. As to the question of how the architects of this bold new adventure intended resettling nine hundred and ninety people in the flat wasteland over fifty kilometres (or almost an hour’s drive) north of the city centre, the answer, on the surface at least, was simple. From the moment the project was proposed there was, hand in hand with it, the further proposal of constructing an enormous six-lane freeway from the city fringe to just over the fifty kilometre mark. Obviously, without this hand in hand proposal, well advertised as a fait accompli, no-one would ever have moved to the Estate in the first place: aside from those who, counting on a population sufficient to sustain them, intended setting up businesses there, it was obvious that the remaining majority would have to commute to the city for work. The freeway proposal promised to reduce a commuting time of almost an hour to a little under half that; a very significant reduction. Two further carrots were dangled, and not unimportant ones either. All those who lived on the Estate were to be issued with ‘residency cards,’ proving that they lived there and allowing them on production of their card to buy petrol at the petrol station that was to be built on the eastern access road at half the usual price. (The residency cards were in fact issued, the phantom petrol station is another story.) In other words, you could drive from the Estate to the city and back every day and still come out with a weekly petrol bill no worse and in some cases even better than before. The final carrot, and the most important for many, was a case of economics in its crudest form. The Estate was Government-subsidised and all the houses available there cost on average one third less than a house of similar size and design as the many to be found on the suburban fringe. For those with a dream of owning their own home but without the means to do so, this was an enormous incentive to make the long journey north.

A hundred and twenty six official residents attended the opening gala that day (though we still didn’t have our residency cards, on that day we nevertheless felt official), and though a hundred and twenty six is a long way from nine hundred and ninety it did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm. They were an odd assortment of people; young married couples, new immigrant families, older folk who had come to escape the city and slowly count out the days to their retirement, and, as to be expected, a small number of more established families from the towns further north (farmers mostly) who, with an eye to the discount petrol, had in addition made no small profit on the sale of their own houses against the much cheaper purchase of an Estate one. There was no-one there that day who couldn’t fail to feel a sense of importance, of being part of a great experiment the success of which, to most people’s minds, was already assured. But hardly had the marquee and bunting been taken down than the first grumblings began.

There were problems with the sewage; the first real indication of the haste with which, especially in the final stages, the Estate had been built and what effect this had on the workers’ attention to detail. The sewage pipes were connected to each house to be sure, and these pipes linked to the main line which was to carry the effluent away. But further to that no plans were made and as was later found the main line simply stopped about twenty metres beyond North-East Court and discharged its contents there. At this point, on the northern fringe of the Estate, a small creek passes in an east-west direction before turning south towards the sea -  usually drying to a trickle in summer but often flooded in winter - and it’s into this creek that the sewage found its way. (It is an even greater cause for disbelief to remember that, at the time, there was a plan to dam this creek at a point a little west of the Estate, excavate a large area east of this dam and so create a lake which was to become the central feature of a five hectare recreational park.) The creek began to stink, so much so that those who had bought houses on the northern edge (and they were not a few, having heard and believed the story of the park) soon applied to swap them for houses on the other side of the Estate. The northern sector became deserted. The petrol station, despite the endless promises, was and remained no more than a large concrete slab that had been hastily poured one afternoon a week or so after the opening. Four square metal plates with four rusting bolts in each were the only evidence left that they ever had any intention of returning to erect the structure. Finally, as if to rub salt into our wounds, we soon found that not a single telephone on the Estate worked: every phone was dead.

With the odour of sewage wafting through our doors and windows whenever the breeze was from the north and with the realisation that the offer of discount petrol had been no more than an empty promise, many people quickly made plans to get out. ‘For Sale’ signs went up in the front yards of a number of houses but the grass grew thick around them. Rumours of the Estate’s problems had already reached back to the city and no-one wanted to buy. A few households took down the signs and decided, with a certain fatalism that marked the period to follow, to stay; others, desperate to get out at any cost, eventually sold their houses back to the Government at a fraction of the price they’d paid for them. In this way we lost (I’m speaking of the first twelve months here) eight families in all: those that remained had quickly established themselves in the southern part of the Estate, as far away as possible from the creek. The northern part quickly fell into neglect; wild grass, gorse and thistle took over and grew to chest-height in the yards and gardens. Weeds forced their way up through and widened the cracks in the footpaths and streets. With the combined weight of sometimes ten or twenty birds’ nests the eaves on the houses began to sag and collapse. And, in the case of those houses on the very northern edge, the combined forces of the first winter’s rains, a swollen creek and a small moving sea of effluent soon served to undermine the foundations. The houses themselves began to sag and crack - in one case a whole front wall falling over onto the lawn, exposing an empty lounge room with the paint already flaking from the walls and the half-rotted body of an old stray dog inside.

By the end of the second year (Inauguration Day was marked by a small protest in the Square) many more people had left but a relative handful, some fifty in all, had decided to stay. Though no-one believed in the petrol station any more, the freeway was still a hard dream to give up. As the greater part of the Estate began to fall apart around us, the remaining population - concentrated around and to the south of the Square - were bound together all the more tightly. We believed, despite the unfinished works and unfulfilled promises, that the freeway would come: it was hard for us to believe how it could not, given that the whole rationale of the Estate’s existence was based on the very fact of its coming. It was only a matter of waiting, we told ourselves, and of making the best of it in the meantime.

But such faith was misguided: by the end of the third year, still without a freeway and with the population now reduced to a mere twenty-seven adults, five children and an uncountable number of dogs and cats, the real situation became clear. The original planners had made a mistake; they’d built an Estate over fifty kilometres north of the city but the fact was that in the intervening years it had become clear to everyone that the north was not the place to be. Under the influence of various private property developers who, soon after the declared Government backing of a northward expansion had wisely bought up vast tracts of land on the much more lush and hospitable eastern belt, the suburbs had begun to march unstoppably in that direction. Housing was cheap, one estate was quickly grafted onto the next to form whole new suburbs, families moved there by the thousands, new business and employment opportunities flourished and before long the expansion had moved so far out that the idea of building a freeway north at the expense of the much more obvious needs of those in the east became, for those originally responsible for our Estate, unsustainable. The northern freeway was ‘temporarily delayed’ (as if it had not been delayed already) and all the money, equipment and manpower was immediately transferred into the construction of a new eastern freeway, to be completed with all possible haste.

The north was suddenly and quite brutally forgotten. All those previously responsible for the Estate’s planning and construction quickly wiped their hands of it and turned their eyes to the East. The Estate fell back in on itself, more isolated than ever. House prices fell dramatically again (they were now worth little more than the dry earth on which they stood) and, however much they may have wanted to get out, few people could afford to sell at such a loss. We protested, of course, and the Government, no doubt driven by guilt, responded to our protests with the payment of a small monthly subsidy to those hardy residents who had decided to stay. Rest assured, they said, the freeway will come - but the wait may be a long one and we should not be made to suffer in the meantime. Finally, and a little ridiculously, as if to expunge any remaining guilt, a telephone box for which no coins were needed suddenly appeared overnight in the Square.

The original dream was shattered, all but the deluded had fled, and in the end six three bedroom solid brick homes on South Street and one, incongruously, on the edge of North Court, were occupied by one person each.


So this was the Estate, the Outer Suburban Village Development Complex as the sign on the access road called it, a now dead and forgotten place, testament for any visitor who may chance upon it - and they, believe me, were few - to some now very anonymous architect’s grand but misguided vision. We gathered in the Square of an evening to drink and talk (it was summer when the last rat jumped ship and left us seven to sink or swim) and at that hour, as the heat of the day began to subside - and the heat out there in the height of summer was almost unbearable - the Estate did for a time begin to resemble as closely as it ever might the village the original planners had in mind. Ignore the empty and tumbledown houses, the gardens of wild grass and gorse, pass over the stench from the creek and the streets and footpaths riven with cracks, and you might almost see the faint stirrings of a new community being born.

Around us on the Square the shops remained empty and ghost-infested, white masking tape crosses still stuck to their windows. Weeds crept up through the cracks at our feet, starlings flew home to roost under the supermarket awning. Far, far away you could hear the tortured bellowing of a cow. On the grass plantation in the centre of the Square where the bronze plaque still stood as a somewhat incongruous reminder of an old dream long faded, a motley assortment of dogs and cats gathered to sniff, gambol and doze. The evenings fell slowly, casting long shadows across the Square, and, clear as we were of the city lights, night revealed above us a magical cupola of stars.

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