Tim Winton Quotes in The Boy Behind the Curtain
Without words I was dangerously powerless. The gun served as a default dialect, a jerry-built lingo that may have been less sophisticated than a laundry list, but it came with ready-made scripts that had been swilling about in the back of my mind since infancy. These were storylines as familiar as the object itself. But the lexicon of the gun is narrow and inhuman. Despite its allure it was insufficient to my needs.
It sent me through a Star Gate of my own into an expanded reality. It wasn’t just my introduction to the possibilities of cinema, it was a wormhole into the life of the imagination, where artefacts outlive the tools with which they are wrought as well as the makers who once wielded them. In that parallel universe useless beauty requires neither excuse nor explanation and wonder is its own reward.
Sometime during that long convalescence I came upon the helmet Dad had been wearing when he was hit. Made of laminated cork, it was cumbersome, and it felt unstable in my hands. The crazed pattern of cracks dulling its whiteness gave it an unnerving broken-eggshell texture. For a long time—for years, I think—I continued to seek it out, to turn it over in my hands, to sniff the Brylcreem interior, and try to imagine the sudden moment, the awful impact, and the faceless stranger behind all this damage.
The whole thing was a garish sideshow, absurd and sinister. In that ugly flashback I heard myself laughing like a deranged clown. I was a university student but I couldn’t even tell the ambos who the prime minister was. And in the ambulance I could not move a limb. Some bloke with hairy arms was holding me down. It wasn’t a rescue—it was a kidnapping.
If you can ever know something you’ll understand it by what it has given, what it owes, what it needs. It has never existed in isolation. And ghosting forever behind its mere appearance is its holy purpose, its billion meetings with the life urge in which it has swum or tumbled or blossomed, however long or however briefly.
It takes a while for it to sink in, but the closer you get to the desert, the more life there is in the land; once you’re fully beyond the reach of modern cultivation there are trees again, and from their shadows come enough birds, reptiles and mammals to let you feel you are finally back in Australia. Each time I traverse the dead zone of the wheatbelt and reach this territory, my mood lifts—and then I think, What kind of man cheers up at the sight of roadkill?
Still hunkered by the old warren, Underwood confessed to a conviction that somehow, one day, the boodie would return to Mt Gibson. His tone was wistful but also defiant, as if over time he’d inured himself to ridicule on this point. I thought again of the potent space that an absence becomes. The lost boodie is just a part of a wider absence, a pattern of extinction that haunts this continent.
Churchgoing was my introduction to conscious living. Nowhere else was I exposed to the kind of self-examination and reflective discipline that the faith of my childhood required. I’d be surprised if anyone at my boyhood church had read even a page of Tolstoy, but it seems to me now that the question that ate at him so late in his life was the central issue for us, too. What then must we do?
Language, I was to discover, is nutrition, manna without which we’re bereft and forsaken, consigned like Moses and his restive entourage to wander in a sterile wilderness. As a novelist I seem to have spent every working day of my adult life in a vain search for the right word, the perfect metaphor for the story or sentence at hand, while so often writing about characters for whom words are both elusive and treacherous. I didn’t catch the bug at school, I picked it up at church.
Ashore there’s a wary osprey astride a bleached stump and beneath him the charred remains of a bonfire from last winter. Drop your face back in and it’s something out of Kubrick, all hurtling colours and shapes and patterns so intense as to be slightly mind-bending.
Waiting and flowing were anachronistic notions, they’d nearly become foreign concepts, but to me they were part of an imaginative lexicon, feeding something in me that had to do with more than surfing. The child of a pragmatic, philistine and insular culture, I responded to the prospect of something wilder, broader, softer, more fluid and emotional. It sounds unlikely but I suspect surfing unlocked the artist in me.
I show up. I wait. When some surge of energy finally arrives, I do what I must to match its speed. While I can, I ride its force. For a brief period I’m caught up in something special, where time has no purchase, and my bones don’t ache and my worries fall away. Then it’s all flow. And I’m dancing.
It wasn’t just a health facility. At times it was more like a furnace or a power plant. In summer the air around it was thick with screams and sirens and the drone of cooling towers, and in winter its beige mass blocked out the sun. It was a constant, implacable presence.
Afterwards I often looked up at that dreary building as the sun lit its windows and thought of strangers staring out in hope and regret as the rest of us went about our day oblivious. It was sobering to think of all the yearning that spilt down amidst the treetops and roof ridges, a shadow I’d never properly considered before.
It seemed to me at the time that this movement might have been named after the wrong colour, that nothing was as likely to stir the imagination of Australians so much as the sea. With Save Ningaloo we stumbled onto the only sacred site in the mind of mainstream Australia—the beach. Somehow the childhood memory of clean seas and the workaday longing for respite in salty air and the dream of retiring to a still-living coast resonate in the suburbs like nothing else.
I’m conscious that everything I see from here is named and storied, not just the wells and wishing trees and cryptic dirt mounds, but every hedge, it seems, every wood and boreen. All of it heavy with a past that’s palpable and rich, moving in its way, even if it doesn’t quite mean anything to me personally.
A few days ago I woke with a light shining in my face. I thought I’d fallen asleep reading and left the bedside light on. But no, it was the sun shining in the window, warm and strong and clean for the first time since we arrived. Spring had come, and it made me think of home.
In the wake of that cold, sweaty minute in the Astor it wasn’t as if I was consciously and constantly afraid of sharks but they were a liminal presence thereafter, something lurking in the water beyond the pleasure of the moment. It hardly ruined my life but it did divide the mind in a way that was new. For along with the creaturely joy of snorkelling in the open water behind the reef there was now a twitch of anxiety. The eye searched for something even when I wasn’t looking.
When anglers like the legendary Alf Dean “fought” tiger sharks and great whites they did it for pleasure, for some sense of mastery, then they dragged them ashore and hung them from gantries. I remember enormous, distended carcasses suspended from meat hooks and steel cables on jetties on the south coast. The dead sharks often had their lengths and weights painted on their flanks as if they were machines.
Their faces and voices were completely familiar. They smelt like the people of my boyhood—fags, sugar and the beefy whiff of free-range armpit—but despite the cheerful, noncommittal conversations we had on our slow ascents in the lift, I felt a distance that took many months to come to terms with. Like the expatriate whose view of home is largely antique, I was a class traveller who’d become a stranger to his own.
First kill your camel. Next, light a big fire. After that get a cauldron big enough to hold your hapless dromedary. If it becomes necessary, hack the beast of burden to pieces and keep the pot at the boil for days on end. Then take a straw and a suture needle and begin spitting your rendered camel through the tiny aperture.
As I bore down upon them I saw the two wedgetails had the body of a third eagle between them. A little unlikely, but there it was. Probably mown down by a truck. They were struggling over the carcass, each bird with a wingtip in its beak so that in the midst of this tug of war the dead raptor rose from the gravel to its full span, dancing upright, feathers bristling in the wind. I was tired and slightly loopy, it’s true, but it looked to me as if that eagle were taunting me, capering at the roadside as if to say, Here I am, not gone yet!
According to this new dispensation Australia does not belong to the wider world. We’re nobody’s fool. We have no obligations to our fellow humans, unless it suits us. Why? Because we are exceptional therefore beyond reproach. What makes us so special is not clear but we are determined, it seems, to distinguish ourselves in the world by our callousness, by our unwavering hardness of heart.
The good old days may be long gone, yet here we are, as ever, launching a boat from the beach in a quiet bay under cloudless skies, bobbing on clean water. In an hour we’ll have enough sweet-tasting fish to feed two households.
There were many things I didn’t understand, stuff that made me uneasy, stripes and splashes and globs on pedestals that had me scratching my head. There seemed to be no limit to what people could think of, and that was a giddy feeling. On and on the galleries went. And on and on I trekked, until finally I yielded in dismay, backtracked like a sunburnt Hansel and found my clan hunkered by the entrance, spent and waiting.