by Kim Kelly
LOST & FOUND IN GREGHAMSTOWN
This is Greghamstown, one of the tiniest dots on the map of New South Wales. These days, its main street consists of half a handful of tin roofs and a few dozen outlying rural properties, one of which is The Bend, where I live, and depending on which map you consult, it appears as a hamlet of Millthorpe or of Blayney – or doesn’t exist at all.
It was only a strange trick of time that brought me here in the first place. My muse de bloke, Deano, and I were facing the grinding crisis of his surprise bout of catastrophic kidney failure, and the promise and fear of impending surgery that would see me give him one of mine. What else do you do at such a juncture but buy a small and gorgeous slice of nowhere? That’s what we did, anyway. An act of faith in defiance of heartbreak.
A home. And one I’ve never felt so much at home within – which was a surprise in itself. I’ve always been unanchored to place, being a person of blended identity and aware since childhood of my status as interloper. Outsider. Cultural drifter. This is where my fascination with history began: who am I and how did I get here? Questions that have revealed an infinity of time tricks and shown me always how very blessed I am to have any home in this country at all.
Even before we moved into The Bend, I began fossicking for stories about this place, and one of the first I found was a snippet from The Leader, an old newspaper printed out of Orange, in 1912:
A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and evening was provided by the Greghamstown folk on Wednesday when the usual picnic and concert in aid of the Anglican Church was carried out in the church grounds. The day was an ideal one for a picnic, and in consequence the attendance was unusually large, about 300 adults and children being present, including many visitors from Blayney, Millthorpe, and the whole of the district. Afternoon tea was served in a marquee specially erected for the purpose, and it speaks well for the ladies in control that notwithstanding the extra number of visitors there was ample for all. The concert was held in the marquee, which was packed. A bright varied programme met with generous applause and appreciation.
Three hundred people at a picnic, here? Of course that then sent me off fossicking further into the past, finding all kinds of stories, clues to the changing shapes of this country – whispers of war and land-grabbing, gold rushes and grazing.
In our shiny, grimy, ever-swelling cities that cling to the coast, it’s easy to imagine that our knock-em-down-build-a-bigger-one approach to urban development is just the way things are, and that the bush is somehow a static mystery we’re all a bit too busy to be bothered with. But places like Greghamstown hold the archaeological keys to the dynamic, ever-epic identity we all share: fierce battles between the Wiradjuri and the military force sent out to crush them; the corruptions of wealthy pastoralists who thrived on stolen land; the savagery of bushranging outlaws who sought to tear it all down; the genteel carving up of the vast squatters’ runs into smaller selections in hopes of taming this country and her people. All these things happened in and around Greghamstown – a place that’s all but been reclaimed now by the bush its imagineers fancied they might conquer.
Just as our lives are ephemeral, so is everything we make and do, but in another act of faith in defiance of heartbreak, I started a novel here that first spring we arrived at The Bend. When we wrestled with doubt about the move, I’d asked my Deano, ‘Where do we want to be if things go bad?’ Whispering with all my soul: Where do you want to die? No contest. We had to make our move. But in my own quieter terror, I asked myself: ‘What do I want to die writing?’
Fast and loud the story roared onto the page, driven by all my own wonderings of who I am and how I got here, and urged on, too, by all those who gazed out at this country before me. I wrote to laugh with every lucky hand that had brought me to this precise place, so full of questions itself, and to cry with every loss that had delivered its mortgage documents to me.
As the unlikely hero of my story, Jeremy Fox, falls in love with Annie Bird, a young woman searching for her own place on the map, searching for her Wiradjuri grandfather, he is struck by the truth of Aboriginal dispossession and dispersal as it contrasts with his own Hebrew heritage:
Things change, times change, names change, people come, people go, like tides, Jews flee Tangier once every century, and return to begin again, but there’s something about Annie Bird’s loss, some lonely-moon marcasite enormity in it, that’s overwhelming.
And it remains overwhelming. But while we can’t turn back the clock to right the wrongs of the past, we can tell our truths about it for a fairer future – before it all slips through our fingers like sand. I’ve chosen to tell my truths in a spirit of love and justice and gratitude, mostly because that seems to be the only way I can tell a tale.
And I can’t wait to share this one with you. That story I began back then with a pocket full of wishes is at the typesetter now. She’s called Lady Bird & The Fox and come April this year she’ll be set free in the world, taking this little speck of wonder hidden in the hills out around the globe.
Find Lady Bird & The Fox at Goodreads here.