Never Never

One Year the Milkweed, Arshile Gorky

I’ve spent weeks painting these walls. Spent weeks painting this shack, inside and out. Spent weeks, now, learning this place: this house, this garden, this street, this town. Already, I’ve memorised the view from the end of my road: a ravaged curve of mountainous coast crooked around the edge of the bay; a bay that opens out to the ocean; an ocean that pours into the southern hemisphere which makes up the bottom half of this whole God-damned world. Already, I just need to close my eyes to see the gouged cliffs and the dark dense bush that cloaks it all like the tough knotty hide of a slumbering beast—a huge and ancient powerful thing pierced, here and there, by daggers of glass and steel. Houses? No, not houses. Mansions. Architected growths that snatch the hot sun and hurl it back at the sky again, defying materiality. Mansions that, at night, transform into a scatter of low-flung stars so that the earth and the sky and the ocean merge into one thing, a same thing, a whole thing—just one starry starry darkness.

It scares me, being out there at night.

I cannot see where things begin or end.

I cannot see where I begin or end.

It scares me half to death.


I dip the brush into the thick white paint. I am painting the ceiling of the hallway. The ceiling is already white, but when I stroke on the new paint I can see that the old paint isn’t white at all. It is yellowed, marked with fly-shit and smoked with ash from the rickety fireplace at the back of the shack. Brown-feathered rings ripple out from one corner—water stains that I’ve already called a plumber to investigate. It amazes me—it thrills me—still, that you can call someone and they will simply come and fix your problem (so long as you can pay them).

The paint spreads over the marks and stains like cream, like satin, like silk. Back and forth the brush goes and—from this new rhythm to my days—a song, a chant, an incantation: my house, my garden, my street, my town, my ocean, my world, my stars, my life. I love it. I love it. I love it. It’s mine now, all mine.

From the radio, a disembodied voice beats its own rhythm down the hall, unearthing words from old rote memory: a poem we learned at school.

Strangled by thirst and fierce privation –
That’s how the dead men die!
Out on Moneygrub’s farthest station –
That’s how the dead men die!

Below me, the dog moons past my ladder with her long-face on: that is, with her head and muzzle and tail lowered, her ears flattened and her eyes rolled up to catch my gaze and make sure that I can see that she is mooning past my ladder with her long-face on. I glance down. Look back up. Return to my work.

Hardfaced greybeards, youngsters callow;
Some mounds cared for, some left fallow;
Some deep down, yet others shallow;
Some having but the sky.

The reading ends, but the poem’s opening lines remain, a refrain turning circles within me. Out on the wastes of the Never Never – That’s where the dead men lie!

I continue to paint, letting the lines’ cadence pace my stroke. Meanwhile, the dog escalates her complaint. She wanders back and forth. Her face gets longer and longer. She adds a low grumble of displeasure to her protest. When she musters a trembling plaintive cry, I step down the ladder towards her.

She looks up, poised and hopeful. I am struck, as ever, by her need for routine—by her need to maintain a specific sense of order.

I lean down and paint two strips over each of her bright amber eyes with the edge of my brush. She of the silky-black-coat now has two white eyebrows which will stay on her face for days, perhaps weeks.

I know, if she doesn’t, that the power of her long-face has been muted—neutered.

I know, if she doesn’t, that she can only—now—look very surprised.

As I resume my painting, she disappears and returns with a tennis ball. She chucks it at the ladder, watches it ricochet around the rungs like a ping pong ball, then watches it roll down the hall.

She does not fetch it. Instead, she looks up to gauge my reaction. Dogs are unique animals in this regard—in their total understanding of the human gaze. She knows that where I look—what I see—predicts exactly what I will do.

I keep painting even though I know that she is getting very frustrated. I keep painting even though I know that, if I don’t give her what she wants (or is it, what she needs?), she will soon wander away and—oh so quietly—tear up a book or a cushion or a shoe. She learned long ago that, though I might ignore her, I will never ignore the destruction of my lovely precious things.

I finish painting the ceiling. I descend the ladder. I seal my paintbrush and my pot of paint with gladwrap. I find her lead. She barks and jumps, barks and jumps, her eyes blazing.

Fuck her, I think, crossing my arms and refusing to look at her. Fuck you.

She understands. Shuts up. Sits.

I hold the steel noose of her choker-chain in front of her. I click my tongue. She obeys me. She stands and puts her head straight through it—exactly as I knew she would, exactly as I trained her to.


When I’m not painting, I’m walking—we’re walking. Walking the backstreets of a place I used to visit and visit and covet and covet.

Tonight, my new earworm accompanies me, making us march to its strangely gleeful beat. Out on the wastes of the Never Never – That’s where the dead men lie!

We walk and recite and continue to explore what lies between the ocean and the dense black, cloud-capped forested mountains that rise up and up behind it all. I’m seeing the facts behind the façade, the place behind the idea of the place—this place that so many people call Paradise. I’m looking for the reality that spawned my fantasy.

Reality. Fantasy. Reality. Fantasy.

I’m lucky. I get to choose where I live. I choose to live in my fantasy.

Before we bought this shack, the only people I ever saw out here were tourists. This was because I was a tourist doing touristy things in touristy places. I was on holiday, and when you’re on holiday you enter, for a little while, a weirdly communal imaginary with its own rules and realities, maps and terrains. When I walk here at night now, I spy on these strangers—these newly othered others—through the wide-open curtains of their holiday rentals. Tourists are apparently oblivious to (or do they revel in?) the exposure of their every intimacy. I see people eating, boozing, board-game-playing, dressing, undressing, teeth-brushing, crotch-armpit-and-arse-scratching. I see couples sitting up in bed, holding hands and watching TV. (Surely this is the sweetest and most ordinary of things.) I see other couples lying next to each other, prone—like corpses—each staring into their own tiny screens. (Surely this is the most depressing and most ordinary of things.) And, of course, I see all the fighting and fucking that every holiday provokes. When on holiday—anonymous in a new place, guaranteed to leave sooner than later—people leave their shame at home. Shameless, they pretend to be someone they’re not—or cease pretences all together.

But I live here now, so there will be consequences for being both who I am and whomever I pretend to be. And so, with my inhibitions and pretensions in tow, I am wandering off the tourist map, exploring the backdrop—the scaffolding—that creates this theatre by the sea. I am walking down streets that tourists never visit, streets that I never visited and never, in fact, knew existed. I am walking here, daily, and I am searching for something—or is it someone? Yes, I am looking for what I can only describe as the ‘true’ locals and the ‘true’ locale for I want to know what earth I’m treading on, whose territory I’m trespassing upon—just what it is I’m stealing from whom.

To be clear, I’m not looking for the people who lived here first and longest, and who render the rest of us tourists forever. I know I’ve been raised blind and deaf to any sign of their presence—and, therefore, all signs of their absence—and perhaps that is why, each time I think of them (them?) my mind turns, instead, to contemplate a particular man that I know.

This man recently moved here from Europe, and lives in the bush on the highway that tethers the city to the ocean. The first time our paths crossed, he cornered me into a lecture: It is so racist up there, up there in Germany! (He pointed to the sky, as if Germany is a country made from clouds.) I could not stand it! That is why I moved down here—down here, to Australia! (And he pointed to the ground, as if Australia is a country made from dirt.) His words, his righteous anger—his spittle of conviction—baffled me. Where did he think he was? Perhaps he’d mixed up the Never Never—where the dead men lie! —for Neverland, that magical place where maps have no boundaries and time stops still so lost little boys need never grow up. I did not challenge or question him. Instead, I bit my tongue because I know better than to pick fights with proximate people—especially men or any of the many troubled souls who wander this world, desperate for purpose, for meaning, for a tribe of their own to belong to.

Next to the road outside of this man’s house—the house that he owns, which sits upon acres and acres of native bush which he also owns—he has recently hung a flag: red of earth, of blood; black of skin, a people; that bold yellow sun. Each time I drive past his display I feel irritated: embarrassed of him, and for him; embarrassed of and for myself. What does it mean, his gesture? What does he think he is stating with that flag on his land (his land)? And to whom, exactly, is his gesture directed? To himself? To me and everyone else who lives here? To them? (Them?) When I realised that this flag resembled that of his homeland (the same bold colours, but reconfigured) I’m sure that I glimpsed, for a second, the absolute chaos of his insatiable—objectless—needs and desires.

The dog and I walk and we walk, slowly moving away from the ocean towards the mountains.

I know that, when it comes to the people who lived here first, anything I say or do will be as wrong as my silence and my paralysed inability to make any gesture at all. But I also know that there is another reason I am not searching for signs of their presence or absence: I am heart-full with my new home, and I am hope-full for a new future, and I don’t want any of that stained with blood or shame.

Reality. Fantasy. Reality. Fantasy.

I’m lucky. I get to choose where I live. I choose to live in my fantasy.


The dog jerks me this way and that, excited by smells and sounds I am oblivious to. I cannot tell if her excitement is provoked by pleasure or anxiety. Her agitation reminds me of the warning I once heard: a dog’s briskly wagging tail might signal friendliness—or immanent attack. When I first heard this it reminded me how some psychologists believe that the human smile is nothing other than the ‘fear grin’ that primates exhibit when they attempt to avert threat with pre-emptive submission. We bare our teeth at each other in an attempt to communicate, I don’t want to hurt you, please don’t hurt me. If everyone is smiling, everyone is safe. (So much for love and affection.)

As we walk towards the mountains, the roads transform from concrete-curbed bitumen into raggedy-edged gravel. Most of the homes here are similar to mine: very simple and very small. Unlike mine, however, these places sit on huge blocks that haven’t yet been butchered up by subdivisions and they are not yet surrounded by renovated or newly constructed buildings. Most of the houses back here are, instead, falling to pieces—their asbestos finally, and dangerously, buckling under a lifetime of ocean-born weather.

This is the place, and these are the people, that I’ve been looking for: the generations who have been living here—and could afford to live here—until people like me fled the city for the sea on the digital wings of technology.

If I can ignore the ever-present absence of my new home’s first people, I cannot ignore what is happening to those who live here now. How can you ignore facts that have faces? Faces which you see everyday? Faces that see your seeing, even as they look away?

We walk our usual route, past the double block that’s been swallowed by a jungle of overgrowth and is enclosed by an ugly, six foot, chicken wire fence. I cannot see a house in here, but I know it exists because of the wood smoke that sometimes ribbons up from the trees, and because of the chickens and the mangey, tumorous old mongrels that I’ve spotted wandering about the long grass with its detritus of toys and bicycles.

We walk on, past another double block that is neatly packed with rows of aluminium-clad portables—what Americans might call a ‘trailer park.’ Some of the tin boxes have walking frames or electric scooters parked outside. Many have ramps and rails leading to their front doors. Some have huge old Commodores or Falcons beached in their weedy, gravel driveways.

We keep going, past a few more derelict asbestos shacks, until we reach the open paddocks that connect these back streets to the foot of the mountains. I glance up at the enormous house set into the side of the closest rise. This house is visible from everywhere in town, not only because it is huge and shiny and elevated, but because the builders blew out a chunk of the mountain in order to construct it: that is, they marred everyone’s view of the mountain to improve one person’s view of the sea. It’s impossible to miss this structure in any light, but right now it’s blazing: jags of glass bloodied-bright by the setting sun.

I try not to admire it. (I admire it. I desire it.)

We walk along the dirt road. The paddocks lie fallow on either side of us, their fences sucked into the muddy floodplain, their scrubby grass grazed by quiet mobs of kangaroos and squawking gangs of snowy cockatoos. We walk until the road stops at the foot of the mountain. I look up. The dog follows my gaze. From this angle, the mansion cannot be seen. There is just a sheer rise of dirt and rocks and knotted shrubbery, squat trees and bushes that have coiled back into themselves under the relentless weight of centuries.

Out where the grinning skulls bleach whitely
Under the saltbush sparkling brightly;
Out where the wild dogs chorus nightly —

That’s where the dead men lie!


When we hit the bitumen of my street, I notice a figure in the distance walking right up the middle of the road. Though it is now dusk, and I cannot see his face, I recognise this man’s tall stocky frame and the way he swaggers with one hand up at his chest. I know that his thumb will be hooked under the strap of the small black backpack that—I also know—will be slung over one of his broad shoulders.

Now that I live here, I am working out who is who and who does what. I know that this man is middle aged, bald-on-top but with a grey beard that goes all the way down to his belt buckle. He looks like a biker, though I’ve never seen him on a motorbike: he walks everywhere. I know he lives somewhere in the back blocks that my dog and I have been exploring. I know he works at the hardware shop all week. I know that he will walk back down my street again, in an hour or so, looking fresh and tidy in top-to-toe polyester black. I know he’ll work three or four hours in the pub tonight and then, around midnight, he’ll walk back home again. I know that tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, he’ll do it all again.

As I study him—safe from my distance—I see a silver car slide onto the road behind him. I know that car. It’s that woman again. I have learned—because she told me when our paths first crossed—that she lives somewhere in the mountains, though she called the mountains the ‘hinterland.’ (Similarly, she called the town a ‘hamlet,’ and her usage of such words immediately, irrevocably, and irrationally, made me hate her.) In my mind, she lives in the massive glass and steel house cut into the mountainside. In reality, I have no idea where she lives. In reality, I know hardly anything about her at all. I watch her drive past the man. He refuses to get out of her way, so she has to curb-crawl alongside him before cruising on towards me.

Like the man, I prefer to walk on the nice wide road instead of the narrow concrete footpaths that the council has begun to build on this side of town (the tourist side of town, the sea-changer side of town). As the woman pulls up next to me, I am forced to move in towards the gutter, then back onto the newly curbed nature strip. I stand there, ducking my head so that I can see her face. She opens the window closest to me—the passenger side window—and also ducks her head, so she can look up at me over the empty seat.

She gives me her usual, polite smile—her fear grin—then raises her own carefully shaped eyebrows at the dog’s acrylic white additions. She doesn’t comment. Instead, once again, she invites me to participate in a local, upcoming event. I say, as I have so many times already, No thank you. As usual, she winces at my reply. I cannot tell if it is hurt or anger or confusion in her face. She waits for me to explain. As usual, I refuse to explain, saying nothing—saying everything—by smiling just as politely as she is. We stare at each other, baring our teeth.

I sense the man coming closer. Can hear the faint slap and crunch of his boots on the bitumen. Normally, I greet him, just as I do anyone I pass in these streets. Sometimes he nods in reply. Sometimes he grunts. Mostly he ignores me. He never makes eye contact, not even when he serves me at the hardware store or the pub. He never smiles. Clearly, I annoy him, but his refusal of basic manners and friendliness annoys me too, which is why, I suppose, I insist on inflicting courtesy upon him.

What is he thinking, right now, as he approaches? Can he sense the little war of wills I am having with this woman? Why should he notice? Why should he care? Why do I care what he sees or notices?

As he comes closer, I remember a story I read years ago, written by a woman who—like me—had been raised to idealise the working classes. She did this until her thirty-third birthday, when she went on a date with a true-blue working-class fella who took her home, bashed her unconscious, then raped her. From then on, she never idealized—never dehumanized—anyone or anything ever again.

The woman resumes talking, explaining how the event that she is inviting me to took months for her and her friends to organise. You’ll love it, she says. It’s for the Community, she says.

It’s for the Community. This is one of her favourite phrases—one of her favourite weapons—through which she manufactures her own importance and exerts influence over others.

I want to say: Whose community? The people who look like, sound like and act like you? The people who want and need what you want and need? Is he a part of this community that you speak of? Are the boozehounds that he serves at the pub a part of it? Are his workmates in the hardware store a part of it? Are the ferals living in that derelict wilderness in the back blocks a part of it? Are the oldies living in those tin boxes—those winter freezers; those summer ovens—a part of it? Are the people who lived here first a part of it? Why do you think that what’s good for you, is good for everyone else?

Of course, I do not say any of these things. (Remember? Don’t piss in your own water bowl. Don’t shit in your own bed.) I am no longer a tourist here, so what I say and do will have consequences. Also, I do not want to hurt this woman and I know that she has never said or done anything to justify my visceral response of utter revulsion to her. I have grown wary of (weary of) such deeply-felt reactions, for I can no longer differentiate between the bodily wisdom of instinct and the fears that make—and are made by—prejudice.

More than any of this, though—I admit it—I do not want to confront her because I do not want to confront this increasingly evident truth: this woman thinks that I am like her.

I am like her.

The man is close now. He is still in the middle of the road, walking up the white dotted line, approaching her side of the car. I can feel the bulk of him moving through the electric dusk. Can see his body in my peripheral vision as I keep my eyes on the woman’s face. Though she is no longer smiling, she is still looking at me, chewing her bottom lip. I watch her chew and feel my skin prickling as the man approaches—a man whom, I assume, works twelve hours most days but will never be able to afford her Tesla or my cute little shack right near the water’s edge. A man whom, I assume, could easily break my neck—and hers—if he wanted to. 

The woman finally looks away from me, thank God. She looks out of her windscreen and watches the man pass by. She cocks her head to one side, as if listening to the image of him.

My dog barks. She is tired and hungry and hasn’t, till now, noticed the stranger’s presence. She starts jerking at my arm. I cannot tell if she is warning him away from us—protecting us—or trying to win his attention and friendship just as I have been, in my own pathetic way, these past few weeks. I haul her close. She surges with frustration and jumps at the car, the blunt hooks of her claws dangerously close to its gleaming new paint. I pull her in towards my body, practically suspending her by her neck. The woman turns back to us. She smile-frowns at the dog—then at me—baring her teeth.

Before she can say another word I say, Seeya! I turn away, though not quickly enough to miss that unfiltered flash of emotion darting across her face. Hurt? Anger? Confusion? I do not know, do not want to know. Too bad, I think, glimpsing the woman’s total isolation—her relentless aloneness. Too bad, I think, dragging the dog over the nature strip towards the new footpath. Too bad, too bad, too bad, I think, stalking away.


Back inside the shack, I resume painting. The dog collapses near the base of my ladder, gazing up at me with a tired panting grin. Despite her surprised white eyebrows, she looks thoroughly satisfied, fully relaxed. Her needs and desires have been met and so she is giving me what I call her ‘love look,’ that steady gaze she gives when there is no tug-of-war between us.

Go to sleep, I say.

Promptly, she keels over and, with a melodramatic huff, goes out like a light.

Long into the night, I paint and I paint, determined to have the place finished for my partner who is tying up our expensive loose ends in the city.

I paint and I tell myself, It’s not my fault. No one, out here—or anywhere—has reason to hate me. It’s not my fault that others are worse off than we are, is it? We’re just lucky, aren’t we? And we work hard, don’t we? We’ve worked hard at every chance we’ve ever gotten.

But I see lots of people working hard—for little, for nothing, for slaps in the face.

I see lots of people who’ve never been given a chance at anything at all.

I see how, though people might be responsible for the choices that they make, they are often not responsible for the choices that they have in the first place.

And I see, perhaps most of all, that no-one really understands what choices they are making until they’ve made them and consequences begin to teach their tricky lessons. In this way, perhaps, we never really make choices at all.

I paint and I wonder why I feel so compelled to walk through the backstreets out here. Why do I coerce my new neighbours into acknowledging me under the guise of friendliness when, clearly, they both recognise and despise my type? Cashed-up city snob, they’ll think. Cashed-up sea-changer. Place stealer, place wrecker. Childless, selfish, pointless female. (Already, in the supermarket, I’ve endured that look cast by a particular kind of mother at women who don’t have children: some sort of anger, resentment, disgust; some sort of ruthless assessment of choices and consequences.) I feel the hostility of these old-timer locals, yet I insist on walking their streets. Why? The bearded man tries to ignore me, but I insist on saying Hello to him. Why? Then, when the hinterland woman tries to befriend me, I insist on alienating her. Why?

It has something to do with the murky nature of power. With sadism, masochism—pleasure and pain. It has something to do with pride and shame, voyeurism and exhibitionism, giving and taking, needing and wanting, loving and hating. And it has something to do, too, with the lessons taught by history: terra nullius, those pretty little words which show how language (mere ideas) can be wielded to destroy and create whole worlds—whilst making might seem right.

These thoughts disturb me. This disturbance pleases me.

Reality. Fantasy. Reality. Fantasy.

I’m lucky. I get to choose where I live. I choose to live in my fantasy.

I move on to painting the ceiling of the front bedroom. I start in the corner that shares a wall—and the water stain—with the hallway. I spread the luscious paint across the feathered brown ripples. Within seconds they are gone. Beautiful!

As the hours darken, I paint and I paint, listening to my breathing and the dog’s rough snoring and the refrains that have begun to roll through me as I settle into this new life at the bottom of the world.

My house. My garden. My street.

There’s going to be a war.

My town. My ocean. My world. My stars. My life.

There’s going to be a war.

It’s mine now. It’s all mine.

There’s going to be a war.

There should be a war, where the dead men lie.


By midnight, the ceilings in the hall and front bedroom are finished.

I look at my work. This is it, I recite. This is it. This new home is the end of desire. I read that somewhere: ‘This having, is the end of desire.’ I will never covet again. I have what I coveted and what others covet. I now am the coveted. (From that same book, another truth tacked onto the page with tiny sharp serifs: ‘Envy… That’s a lot like hate, isn’t it.’ My mind always remembers this quote as a question: ‘Envy… that’s a lot like hate, isn’t it?’ But it was not written as a question. It was written as a statement of fact.)

I tell myself that I am lucky, that I will never pine for anything again. I recite this knowing it is a lie: desire—like fear—always seeks new objects. Why is that? How can it be that nothing is ever, ever enough? What is wrong with us—us humans?

All this time, the dog has lain nearby, snoring her little heart out. As soon as she hears me pick up her lead, she awakens. She lifts her head off the floor and looks at me with a soggy, sleep-squashed face. Slowly, she stands.

I form the loop. Hold up the steel noose.

She looks into my eyes. Looks at the chain. Does not come to me—as I expect her to, as I have trained her to.

I click my tongue, ordering her to obey.

She refuses.

We stare each other. After one long moment, I step forwards and put the choker around her neck.

Outside, we walk down to the beach. Even though she is all bravado by day, the dog is very quiet at night: she is scared of things which she can sense but cannot see. (Only the hand of Night can free them –That’s when the dead men fly!) For her, there is no interest or pleasure in being afraid. She needs me to protect her now, so she keeps her head low and tucked in close to my knee. Her ears flick about and her eyes are wide. In the moonlight, her new white brows practically glow. She looks scared and surprised—comic and pathetic—all at once.

As we draw closer to the beach we see a man turn onto the street ahead of us. Tall, stocky, one hand up at his shoulder, held there (I know) by a finger hooked under the strap of his backpack. It’s the bearded man, coming home from the pub. He appears and disappears as he moves between the circles illuminated by the new streetlights that came with the new footpaths that the new residents demanded when they moved here. (The sea-changers would change the wondrous wild sea itself, if they could.)

Has he seen me? Will he remember me from today? Will he assume the woman in the Tesla is my friend? Do she and I look the same to him? Will he think, forever now, that I would befriend someone who—at least in my mind—blows chunks out of mountains to build forts made from steel and glass?

We both walk up the middle of the road. I lose my nerve first. I move to one side. He holds steady, stoic, looking down at the dashed white line that he traces and untraces every single day.

We pass each other silently—ships in the night—moving in exactly opposite directions.

There should be a war, I think.

There will never be a war, I think.

The wind hits us when we reach the T-junction. We push against it as we cross the ocean road. We pick carefully through the small scrubby dunes and cypresses that guard the beach from the town until, there it is: the bay that opens out to the ocean; the ocean that pours into the southern hemisphere; the southern hemisphere that makes up the bottom half of this whole God-damned world.

We walk across the sand towards the water’s silvering edge. I stare up at the Milky Way—Some having but the sky—then down at the ravaged mountainous coast whose scatter of sparkling inner-lit mansions make the earth and the sky and the ocean merge into one thing, a same thing, a whole thing, just one endless starry darkness.

Like my dog, it scares me—being out here at night.

I cannot see where things begin or end.

I cannot see where I begin or end.

It fascinates me, and it scares me—it scares me half to death. ∎


The lines quoted from the radio poem are from Bancroft Henry Boake’s ‘Where the Dead Men Lie,’ Worker (newspaper), Brisbane, Saturday 12th August, 1899. (Digitised original available in Trove:

The quote about desire is from ‘The Jewish Hunter,’ and the quote about envy is from ‘Willing,’ both in Lorrie Moore’s The Collected Stories, 2008.