Our friendships make us free / The big bad truth in the big blue mountains

It’s Summer, it’s January, and Grace and I are in the Blue mountains. These are the halycon days that you know are happening. cavorting around in my new-old bright yellow car; Yolanda. We eat inch-thick caramel slices in Bullaburra. We record vocals for our holiday band BRACE BELDEN in a small cupboard. I’m worried that we might get thrown out of the guest house and have to sleep in Yolanda. We don’t. The sugar is so intoxicating after a few bites that it is almost sour. Friendship is the ultimate grand gesture wrapped up in a thousand tiny movements.

The next day we meet friends at a clearing at the edge of a cliff, a viewing platform into an enormous green abyss full of blue mist. We swap cars and get a perimeter tour of an abandoned Asylum, almost cliché-spooky, and Zephyr points out a series of shacks that were squatted until the 90s, one of them by his uncle, now passed. Back at the precipice, a man appears from the undergrowth. Brushing aside his long dark hair, he says he’s been out in the bush for several days, swigging from a bottle of Ouzo with a toothy smile. The deep red scratches across his back would appear to confirm this account, although we are, at most, a fifteen-minute walk from the main road, this illusion of remoteness works for him just as it works for us.  He says he’s out here because he hates all people. I stiffen suddenly, suspecting we are on the brink of some nihilistic diatribe I’d rather skip, but it doesn’t come. Grace and I somehow scoot ourselves over to an outcrop further away. The instinctive retreat from a strange man is obviously our reasoning but neither of us ever says so. Our Easy, unafraid men, blessed with a lack of paralysing instincts, do the charming talking. A byproduct of low population density is the Australian’s easy way with small takl. He smiles. “I need to learn to be alone so I can be with other people, for my son, you know?” I squint over and notice a tattoo across his chest that reads either ‘Bad Decisions’ or ‘No Regrets’ in a looping, thin cursive. I want to be clear that I don’t remember which. I think about every time my parents are out walking and manage a chat with a stranger and wander if I blame my inability for small talk on gendered fear a little more than I should.  Maybe there is a way that is through, not around. Maybe I’ve been away from London long enough to notice my well-worn street hackles thawing. I lick the drips. After the customary offer of a ride and a go on someone’s phone charger is politely declined and he’s disappeared again, we head back to that road. It’s a huge, dual carriageway that acts like a smooth artery, cutting through forest and rock, a deep trace of violence that smooths out before you can fully compute how it came to be, safely intoxicated by natural beauty tempting you with joy before you’re able to ask what happened here. Even the cicadas are in on this ruse as they amp up their buzz like a white noise app to help you sleep or indeed reach any type of lucid conclusion because all you can do is stand amazed and swallowed whole by their glorious, thrumming buzz.

Later in the afternoon we visit Zephyr’s mother’s house at Glenbrook in the Lower mountains. We are greeted an easy, brilliant woman who seems so profoundly whole I want to fast forward some years and be her slash her best mate. We check out his late father’s Temple ov Psychic Youth fanzines, learn of wizard accreditations schemes and get tipsy on the special dream magick that you can only get from observing artefacts from a friend’s childhood. I pause to think about my own mother briefly, the contours of the wall still between us and wonder what her liberation could have looked like, whether she feels her best self now, how much of her own hackles, constructed for other reasons during other decades, passed down to her daughters with precise instruction, are now thawed. Someone points out a huge lizard in the garden. He’s gone again. The thought passes as we cruise onwards through the thick sunlit forest to the Jelly Bean Pool. Our bellies slide over smooth rocks. We see a St. Peter’s Cross Spider sunbathing just above the waters’ surface. A fatal animal named from the bible, unaware of their given names, stay lounging like a blissed out crucifix. We listen to Normil Hawaiians in the car and rocket along between the eucalypts, narrowly avoiding potholes, appraising absent friends. Ten kilometres stretches out across an hour just to save the car’s axles, and finally we reach Red Hands Cave. One of our party has decided to do the short but steep journey down to the foot of the valley barefoot. Australians. There are two ways in which the Dharug people marked their hands here; either by pressing one into the dark red mud and printing it onto the surface of the wall in front, or by chewing then spitting across an outstretched arm, inverted ochre marking the space where the hand was not. The object and the space around it being given equal weight in the shady business we call representation seems fundamental. The stencil and the painting. The painted wall and the painted hand. Each prints gleam out behind rusty metal bars, campaigned for by local Indigenous rangers to protect the prints from the scourge of vandalism. The prints are between 500 and 1600 years old. I wonder about a thousand years ago, and I wonder about those who graffittied here, their lives and times, too. The tourism notice affixed to the cage offers some blurb about ‘aborigines,’ a word now solely the preserve of dog-whistle racists, and so of course as common as ever depending on the papers you read.

The Big Bad Truth about Australia hangs in the air like a poison gas. The sickness only comes once start to know what you’re smelling. The denial stings your snout too, like a secondary nausea; a bed sore on a tumour. Went to the doctor, he said ‘I don’t know what you mean, mate, your country’s picture of health, mate, I mean, look at all these buildings, you’ve never been fitter, mate! Here’s a perfume, two sprays morning and night and you’ll never feel un-fragrant again!’ You follow Doc’s orders because you trust the authority of your liberal democracy so much that you don’t even mind being forced to vote, and god knows you can’t risk catching The Shame. What if it starts to compress and then slowly crush every bone in your body and the body that birthed you and each and every body that’s gone before, even those already sleeping forever, still stealing dirt to help decay their corpses? Nah, can’t be risking that. With some time and daily sprays, pretty soon you stop choking every time you leave the house. There are ways to cleanse one’s conscience whilst inhaling all these fumes. This is the land of the ‘Fair Go’ after all, mate. Maybe you’ll even learn how to acknowledge country, recite the names of the dispossessed nations, reeling it off before work meetings like you’re announcing the winners of a raffle. Perhaps, between gulps of the perfume, you’ll even start making pronouncements on appropriate policy, referring solemnly to ‘our first nations people, casually wielding that paternal possessive as though you bought some humans who live in your shed. (Luckily for you, enough historical documents have been burnt that you’ll never need discover that your grandparents actually bought humans, didn’t even offer the shed.) No one can tell which is the gas and which is the perfume anymore, but you learn fast not to derail a pub conversation to try and figure that one out, just allow the miasma to penetrate every waking second until you pass out from ten schooners of piss. A mystery lost to time, eh mate?

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