Lightly to the east rise the gentler slopes of the valley; two hills forming a blockade to the Murray’s entrance, so that it twists away, tormented. Writhing, it coils and turns on itself, finding undefended entry further to the south. The face of these hills that fall to the floodplains are steep and worn by the river’s licks and stand hard and bare to the falling winds from the mountains.
East Albury sat safely above the floods that roamed in times of melting snow, washing away the earth’s dead skin and rejuvenating the growth of all that inhabit its way.
Houses stood on ‘benefit’ allotments for service to queen and country, in streets that ended their lives quietly in the scrub as dirt tracks. Along the ridge of the two hills, the stock route: the earth-trodden bypass of town for the lowly sheep and cattle that travelled their miserable way to and from the saleyards behind the smaller hill, next to the abattoir. You knew the killing days by the sounds rising up over breakfast early on certain mornings. The pigs, who were going nowhere, made harsh, louder, more terrified sounds while the cattle moaned sorrowfully and the sheep just panicked.
Our street ended in the gentle fold between the two hills in a final dash of steeply rising dirt that met the stock route. Stock would often make a wrong turn or drovers would take shortcuts and stampede their way down our street leaving behind them gracious loads of shit on our front lawns. In drier times kangaroos would come out from the scrub to graze on the same sprinklered greenery.
I loved the constant view of bush that encircled every day of my life. I loved the sound of the wind ripping across the ridge bearing down on the eucalypts in a warning of storm that would send Mum into a panic. “Bring in the sheets and towels!” And I could see it all from my bedroom window. I loved the threat of snakes in your own backyard, echidnas climbing up your drain pipes, the call of birds migrating over a boy’s bedroom ceiling, signalling their descent onto the billabongs that lay in the intestines of the old river.
We were all ordinary people. Our fathers went to work for other boys’ fathers who lived on the western hills of the valley away from the stockyards, the piggery, the abattoir and the railway. And away from the river. Mothers stayed home and dressed in good skirts for afternoon walks along the stock route with their littlest kids. I remember on those walks looking into the bush and thinking ‘so this is where the big kids roam’.
My first step off the stock route, out of my mother’s hand and onto my sister’s, was as a plaything for her and her friends to play with. They’d make camps in the bush just above the last row of houses on our side of the ridge within safe distance of home. The boys would go off and hunt and the girls would stay back and tend camp, confining their children to the safety of a dusty stick humpy. We were fed a constant diet of sticks and leaves and kept safe from the threat of raids from warring tribes. The raids were all very well organised. The boys would split into two groups, the goodies and the baddies. The goodies would go off a-hunting and return on cue to the screams of help from the girls giggling at the antics of their captors, the baddies. We, their infant charges, remained confined to the safety of our humpy and our meal of sticks and leaves, missing out on all the fun.
Beyond the crest of the ridge was still unknown to me and too far away from home as yet. As I grew older, stories came back from the big kids who were already venturing beyond. Stories about a place called Devil’s Glen where mysteries prevailed; about an old woman you never saw who lived by the billabong at Doctor’s Point in a real humpy. And they talked of the ruins of a homestead tucked back into the glen, only the walls of a stone cellar remaining. It was hidden under leafy green that you could only come across by chance. Said to be the doctor’s and said to be haunted. We were equally divided in our part of town as to whether we had or hadn’t been to the cellar as we were by our brand of religion. To find the old house, walk amongst it, and return with your own story was the quest of quests, the win that declared you a big kid now. And I had my eyes and ears on it.
Doctor’s Point lay on the land that flattened as it rolled out from the glen towards the billabongs on the far side of our hill. A dirt road ran from town right through here on its way out to the big river bend at Mungabareena. I’d looked out on Doctors Point many a time through a back seat car window long before I’d got the chance to set foot on it. The ruins of the old house were up there somewhere I’d be thinking, waiting for me.
Nan knew this place as ‘shanty town’, a village of tents and humpies that had sprung up during the depression and scattered themselves amongst the scar trees and burial trees of a gone-before people, away from the eyes of town. A place for the homeless, the drifters and the hungry to dwell in a land of plenty. Fish, turtle, rabbit, bird, snake, goanna – just to name a few – all lived out there by the billabongs and had provided for all since the river first made its way down from the mountains.
It was true too that an old woman still lived out there in my time, under a few bits of corrugated iron for shelter. She was left alone on her side of her little hill and never came out from under the tin when kids were around. There was once, some time after setting my own feet down, that I caught a glimpse of her dark and dirty face and her oily black hair as she crawled around in her home. Then playing in the schoolyard one Monday morning, I heard the older boys, who went out to the river fishing on weekends, talking about her. Said she’d been found drowned in the billabong. “Face down, drunk.” Some time safely after this, I bravely stood on the remains of her humpy; nothing much left but corrugated iron, rusty cans and flagon bottles. It felt scary to be in her home, like she might come back at any minute and growl at you. What I remember most, about standing there on her side of her little hill, was the incredible view she had out over the billabongs, across the floodplains and straight up to the snow-capped mountains. A view that I now long for. Her humpy was perfectly situated. We never went back there again and slowly over time her place just disappeared along with her.
School holidays and weekends finally became my times for exploring all the mysteries and experiences this place could bring to a child’s life. The stories always conjured fear but they never failed to tempt you. It was a place not to go alone, at least until your teenage years, and even then you’d take the dog. Alone up there, you felt watched.
It was the spring school holidays and my sister was taking a group of her friends on a picnic ‘up the hill’, she would be leading the way. My time had come, I thought, my turn to make my own connections with all that was ‘up the hill’. I asked if I could come too but she had long grown out of use for her baby brother. But I wanted desperately to go, I was ready. I couldn’t wait any longer and this was the perfect opportunity. I decided I would go anyway, that I would follow secretly, at a safe distance. I schemed the plan with John from across the road. This would be his first time in too and I wasn’t going in on my own. Truth is I dragged him into it; following the girls without them knowing, cheating, allowing my sister to unfold the ways. Surely she was going to Doctor’s Point. To the ruins!
We left home not long after the girls, telling our mums we were just going up to play along the stock route. No further. Luckily we were told to take some water. It was mid-morning and the spring day would only get warmer. John and I were both scared but excited at being scared, and anyway, my sister would only ever be a loud scream away.
There we stood, on the verge of the ridge and the rest of our lives, about to venture beyond, to travel down the other side. I was dead set on finding the homestead ruins on my first go, with a little help from my sister.
We took a guess at an easy entry point and went in under the barbed wire. We were in; I aged in an instant. We headed down into the glen guided by the rising sounds of chattering girls. My first impression of the place was of a beauty I hadn’t imagined. I’d expected to be finding my way through brambles and thorns of a true devil’s glen, but these ridges cradled shaded gullies; an Eden of growth, lush and green.
Heading down the side of a gully well into the bush, we heard from higher above us, the distant calls of thirteen-year-old girls singing some dumb church song. We crossed the gully and continued the climb ahead in the direction of their beckoning, only to lose sound of them again. They must have been further down in the gully having their girlie picnic but their singing had bounced its way to us off the ridge. We’d been tricked by our own inexperience.
Coming up and out of the shady gully to the top of the next ridge with nothing more to guide us, we crossed on in my firm belief that this was the direction they had headed. They’d gotten away from us and all we needed to do was pace it up a bit. Down and up, up and down, stopping only for water, to wonder where we were, and to turn the odd rock or two just to see what was under it. Soon our aimless crossing of ridges brought us out into a much clearer area, quite barren of trees. It felt scary coming up out of the glen so suddenly like that, into new, very changed territory. Here it was much drier underfoot, windswept. To the left, the top of the ridge was only a short, but steep and rocky slope away. From the view ahead, away from town, out over the river’s run down from the mountains, we could tell we’d somehow made our way up higher and quite far from where we’d first gone in. Directly below beckoned a dark green canopy, with a line of trees that led down to the road out to the river. We just stopped and stood in the silence, in wonder. Nobody in sight, certainly not the girls, just beauty and silence.
Then suddenly, directly in front of us in broad daylight, out from behind a bush, appeared a figure. It instantly entranced us both. Smooth and white, loosely the shape of a person; a head with no face; shoulders with arms that blended into its shrouded body; it was clearly intent on halting us, turning us back. We just stood and stared. At the pit of its stomach, where you’d buckle a belt, was a purple mark, like a hole squashed sideways. Like us, the figure was motionless, silent. And then was gone. And we were too.
We didn’t run, we didn’t scream. In fact, we didn’t say anything at all, just left. Instinct took over. The quickest way home was to head for the stock route, it couldn’t be too far away. We made straight for it, up the steep and rocky slope. If Jesus walked on water, we walked on rocks. No questions asked. We hit the road for home without even saying a word to each other, all the while the ghostly vision filling my head. It was stuck like an imprint I couldn’t shake; a photo of proof.
Back on the stock route, safely within sight of house and home, I was the first to say anything. “Back there John, did you see it?”
He took a moment, looked at me but didn’t reply.
I pushed him further. “It was white and it had a purple hole in it.”
He had to have seen it. Had to.
He took another moment then said all he would ever say about it. “Yeah. I saw it.”
And we just kept on walking home.
We never took it any further; we just got back on with our lives from the point of where we had stepped off the stock route that day, never admitting to anyone where we had been at all that time. It had been too real an experience; too overwhelming to talk about again, and much, much more than we’d bargained for. We weren’t ready to deal with it. And we weren’t about to make fools of ourselves with an unlikely story of something that didn’t make any sense to us or had ever even been heard about before. Not by anyone we knew. We were the youngest ones, not to be taken seriously, never believed anyway. And we wanted to come back again sometime, so we just forgot about it; deleted the whole episode and didn’t let it get in our way.
Some years later, around our kitchen table after a Sunday supper with my Nan, she began yarning about her courting days with my grandfather. She’d first met him as a friend of the family when they were living at Thurgoona, a bush community a few miles north of the Murray. They would venture across the paddocks to visit one another. One evening, as George accompanied her home, they were stopped at the creek crossing by a figure blocking their path. “Shapeless and white,” she said. “Smooth and roughly in the shape of a person.” It confronted them motionless, silent. “Around where you’d buckle a belt,” she said, “it had a purple hole in it.”