Authors: Craig Sherborne
Tags: #FIC019000, #FIC045000
The Amateur Science of Love
, Craig Sherborne’s first novel
‘All women with lingering illusions about the way men think should read this fast-moving, sharply focused, fantasy-shattering little thunderclap of a book.’ Helen Garner
‘An engulfing, heart-stopping book—a performance that dazzles the eyes and leaves the reader gasping for air.’
‘Sherborne writes so well that he cannot fail to include colour in the darkness…This is a masterful portrait.’
Sydney Morning Herald
‘Fascinating, funny and unputdownable.’
Sunday Herald Sun
‘Poignant…Little can prepare us for this fine novel’s “heartwrecking puzzle”.’
‘Absorbing…the characters are solid and believable, the storyline unpredictable and the rural Australian imagery vivid.’
, Craig Sherborne’s memoirs
‘One of nature’s writers.’ Peter Craven
‘Gruesomely honest and very, very funny.’ Hilary Mantel
‘Mordantly true to life…one of the most interesting autobiographical projects on the go.’ J. M. Coetzee
‘He writes beautifully, especially when the material is not beautiful at all. He can make the cruel truth poetic.’ Clive James
‘Riveting…Moral courage has propelled this book to the page. Its execution is sublime.’
’s first novel,
The Amateur Science of Love
(2011), won the Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Best Writing Award, and was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. His memoir
(2005) was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. The follow-up,
(2007), won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Non-fiction. Craig has also written two volumes of poetry,
(2006), and a verse drama,
Look at Everything Twice for Me
(1999). His writing has appeared in most of Australia’s literary journals and anthologies. He lives in Melbourne.
The Text Publishing Company
22 William Street
Melbourne Victoria 3000
Copyright © Craig Sherborne 2014
The moral right of Craig Sherborne to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this publication shall be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
First published in 2014 by The Text Publishing Company
Cover and page design by WH Chong
Typeset in Garamond Premier Pro by J & M Typesetting
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:
Author: Sherborne, Craig, 1962-, author.
Title: Tree palace / by Craig Sherborne.
ISBN: 9781922147325 (paperback)
ISBN: 9781922148353 (ebook)
Subjects: Rural homeless persons—Victoria—Fiction. Homeless
Dewey Number: A823.4
This project has been assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
For Gordon Glenn
And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.
—Ezra Pound, ‘The Garden’
They tried Mansfield but it was freezing and snowed and people like them don’t fit in because they don’t look prosperous. One time near Yellingbo they found a church no one prayed in and they lived there and for three weeks had stained glass for windows. It was the perfect church Shane was looking for for work. They got chased out and went to Shepparton but Shane had a run-in and police said move. By then Zara was starting her problem and that worsened matters. Eventually they came back west to the Wimmera-Mallee plains because they knew the roads and home was home there though whatever relatives they’d bothered with left ages ago. Out to where trains no longer ran through the towns each day and none had passengers, just tubs of wheat and barley if those were viable that season. It didn’t look prosperous which meant they didn’t look out of place. There was a sense of something closing and ending with shops boarded up and mail blackening the doorways like rot. That was to their benefit and sometimes they broke in and played house till someone found them and made trouble. They could always camp in the forests. The locals shrugged off their kind as ‘trants’, which came from ‘itinerants’, because of the way they could sleep among saplings no better than camping. They weren’t blacks or anything, they just lived that way. Typical trants. A little caravan of blue pine board for their travelling abode. At dark they built fire between stumps of stone and sat round that like night round the moon. They had Shane and his brains and that was their meal ticket. Most trants had been driven out of the life but they remained, the last of their kind.
Then they came upon the place off Loop Road, away from the highway on the outskirts of the town of Barleyville, a better town by the plains’ standards, population almost twelve hundred. A place that may or may not have belonged to anyone but clearly wasn’t at the forefront of people’s thoughts. Up a rise beside a dirt track through a tree-screen of skinny ironbarks. It had no fence or gate. They set up a letterbox—a bucket turned side-on and mounted on a star picket, a mouth cut out for mail. The mail was only from the government but that was worth it. The clay ground had broken away in ruts from a long-ago storm. Tussocky grasses held it together in clumps and when the wind blew the ground seemed to move in the distance from the grey sway and chafing of it all. Not the kind of land worth ten cents to farmers. Quartz stones were sharp on the feet but intriguing to peer at, dusty white with tan patterns. Bits of bark and leaves blew everywhere or crackled like footfalls from the heavy sun.
The best thing was the house. When they first saw it it no longer looked liveable because grass sprouted in the roof and pushed up through the floor. That could be dealt with. It was old with a wrinkled feel the way the weatherboards had peeled and twisted. From the front it looked like a face with its open door hanging wide from the hinges and either side a window for eyes. Tattered blinds fluttered like eyelids and when birds flew out of the broken glass the window could have been blinking. It was time to stop moving and having nowhere for their anchor and always the expense of keeping the caravan roadworthy. This was something more normal that came free.
They parked the caravan beside the house, at a right angle to it so the L-shape blocked the west winds and a lot of the hard west sun. This meant the canvas that usually formed the caravan’s porch could go over the house and serve that same purpose. Shane used nails with flat heads to make it stay up permanently. The metal buttons that clicked it together were tough to push in which made it good and tough to pull apart once united. It sagged like the house had a hat brim.
Shane and Moira slept in the house and Rory and Midge had the caravan. For Zara a tent was tied on the end of the caravan. Shane got it from the new bloke he was dealing with in town. The tent was green with a plastic window and a flap-door for privacy and was well pegged down but had stones for extra weight around the bottoms to block draughts and snakes. She originally slept on her mattress in the house but it only had one bedroom and the kitchen was hot and cramped for sleeping. She’d got irritated and demanded a room of her own.
They rolled a stump into the centre of the L for a table and ashtray, got rocks from all around for a barbeque arrangement and spread themselves out with their paraphernalia: old deckchairs and a sofa they’d taken from the side of the road somewhere which was synthetic enough to withstand weather. They put up their kero lamps for night light and strung a cord that had bulbs plugged to it around the porch for when they got a generator to replace the dead one.
Shane’s new bloke had some pot plants at the back of his shop and he let Shane have them. Moira loved this and put them under the porch for decoration where she could move them in and out of the shade and sprinkle on some water. Water was a problem because the shallow hollow they called the dam, which Shane and Midge had dug by hand, hadn’t filled due to the dry. When it eventually did it would be brown and salty anyway. The house came with a rain tank off to the side but it was empty and not likely to hold the merest moisture. Holes were everywhere and the bigger holes wore long, droopy moustaches of rust. Shane kept his eye out for a better one on his work trips and got lucky at a woolshed in West Paradise. A tank in sound condition, not too big or awkward to transport. He emptied what water was in it, roped it down in the car trailer and brought it home. He also took some of the guttering, which was in good shape compared with theirs. The tank stand was solid too so he dismantled that for their using. Shane and Midge rigged it to the house—new tank, new guttering, new stand. Now all they had to do was wait for rain.
In the meantime they drove to the Barleyville trotting track for water. It was only ten ks every second day and it was fresh town water from the taps at the horse stalls. They filled three jerry cans and had a wash and used the toilets, a break from the long-drop Shane had dug with Midge on barrow duty carting away the dirt and helping bang together some roof iron for a screen. Rory and Zara went to school for a little of last year and used the facilities there, though it was summer holidays at the moment.
On one water run, about a k from the trotting track a tiny dog, a fox terrier type with ginger markings, ran after the car. Shane noticed it in the mirror and felt sorry for the creature and stopped to shoo it away. The dog wouldn’t go and had a limp like Midge, as if hit by a car once or born that way. A dog seemed like a good idea so when it wouldn’t go they adopted it on the spot as a watchdog and family mascot. He lived on scraps and kangaroo shit and they called him Limpy. He could detect cars far off on the highway and scurried about yapping until they faded from hearing.
There was a car turning off the highway this minute, coming straight for them, but Limpy didn’t bark. His tail went stiff and shook because it was their car, the silvery old Falcon station wagon with chugging V8 and squeaking suspension. They shortened ‘wagon’ to ‘wag’ for its name. The dust sprayed up behind it and swirled like a funnel. Limpy trotted to greet it. Moira was driving and Zara was in the passenger side. Limpy ran from side to side to greet them equally and wouldn’t stop when Moira told him not to jump up.
‘Rory,’ she called. ‘Rory. Come here.’
Rory heard and wasn’t ignoring her but he had his two throwing knives from Shane for Christmas—soft blue handles and nicely weighted blades—and hadn’t finished practising. He’d ridden to the Mockorange Road turnoff and played dragons with himself but that got scary, so he came home. He knelt behind a rock among the ironbarks just up from a hare he was aiming at and let fly with a knife. He missed by a long way and the hare scampered. Rory liked the way it pulled back its big ears for running and hunched as he himself did when he rode his bike. But that wouldn’t stop him trying to get it. He walked to where the knife landed and flicked it to the ground for practise. Moira was still calling but he practised twice more before he gave in to her. He wondered whether his skinny arms would get some meat on them if he practised throwing enough. His shoulders too. He had an excuse for walking slow because of his flat feet, but that didn’t apply to puny shoulders.