If you drive well south of Sydney on the roadway high above the coast, through Heathcote and other vaguely remembered stages on surfing and diving adventures, past the tops of the Bulli Pass and the Macquarie Pass, you will possibly notice the Big Potato at Robertson. Possibly not. It is of modest size – scarcely higher than your car – and it is indeed a subtle spectacle with impressionist aspects; with felicities that are pretty much accidental – all far removed from the super realism of the Giant Merino Ram, the Giant Lobster, the Big Pineapple and other icons on the land. For instance it is made of two iron sheets as I recall, and the iron was well rusted last time I saw it and the sheets were joined by rivets. There is something very potato-like about it: the dirty, dusty, rusty skin, the eyes.
Few stop to admire it. Few, most likely, notice it sliding past low on the horizon up there.
Once I went down that way with a blond Irish woman who looked Scandinavian or Californian – even Polish according to one friend – to stay at a hotel called Ranelagh. This was once a monastery. We had sex almost immediately. A mirror took up most of the wall beside the bed. She – we’ll call her Erin – had glorious smooth legs, and there is no subtle way of saying this, but she could really do it. There are times and places when and where sex is indelibly intense. This was such a time and place. That it had been a monastery meant nothing to me. The building reminded me – mysteriously, for in scale and decadent grandeur there was no comparison – of the hotel in Last Year At Marienbad. The drive curved up from the highway through a lane of evenly spaced cypress pines within carefully arranged shrubs and gardens. Something about this formality in a setting of coastal eucalypt forest, which usually signified glittering blue water and the white chaos of breaking ocean swells, was stimulating for me in a different way.
Erin was Catholic but from the north of Ireland, and she believed things that were dismissed or even forbidden by the church as superstitions. Dangerous superstitions I expect. Yet a saint had once sat beside her in an empty church (I don’t dismiss anything now, for reasons that will be made clear) and she had been overwhelmed by a feeling of love and holiness. Curiously he was bearded and dressed as saints usually are in religious paintings. Maybe he was actually Jesus: it was a long time ago. We were never really girlfriend and boyfriend as such, but our liaison outlasted all others for many years until we didn’t see each other for a while and, lo, she was married. We sometimes told each other of our other adventures, while we were doing it. Sometimes we meet and she says, ‘Oh, John we can’t.’ I know that. She showed no signs of guilt. In fact I only ever knew one Catholic woman who felt guilt before, during or after sex.
Sometimes she told me, ‘You were meant to have all these experiences, John.’ Why she thought that I will not say.
On the second day at Ranelagh Erin went downstairs while I was getting dressed, and came back with interesting news. ‘John, I heard some of the staff talking about the ghost, but they went away when they saw me…’
So she asked the young fellow on reception and he told her that almost everyone had some experience of this ghost. Pictures might be hanging crookedly in the morning, further off plumb than the vibrations of people walking would account for. People driving past in the night from the town of Robertson would see someone moving in the attic when all the lights had been turned off and the door locked. As it happened a monk had committed suicide in the attic some years ago… Ah, here they had my attention. I was always one to go into any house believed to be haunted. Nothing ever happened. Nevertheless I decided immediately to give this attic a go. Was it locked? No. It stood open down the end of a narrow hall, to which a small flight of about five wooden steps led. Erin would not follow me. She stood at those steps and watched.
Well, here we go, I thought. This is sure to be another fizzer…
I stepped across the threshold and something began buffeting my chest like a sumo wrestler hitting me with the flats of his hands (they are allowed to do this but not punch kick or bite). What did I see? Nothing. What can I say? Just that it was startlingly tactile, undeniably real. I heard no ghostly voice, saw no diaphanous, gliding form. Objects did not fly through the air. No shoes were thrown. No glass broke against the wall. But I definitely felt a physical force. A sumo wrestler’s buffeting, usually a surprise tactic, is another way of forcing you out of the ring and thus winning the contest. These buffets did not quite have the physical materiality to knock me back out the door, but they stopped me and I certainly felt it. And something else was happening.
Down around the level of my thighs and knees was an extraordinary congested turmoil of dissonant energy. In some ways it was like a pendulum swinging erratically, never completing its symmetrical arc but stopping eccentrically and whipping back the other way.
People who claimed to have knowledge in this area had told me that an unwelcome presence should be told, ‘Go back to from whence you came.’ I was more economical. I said, ‘Fuck off! Fuck off!’ Through gritted teeth. And it all began to subside. At one point I had looked at the sunlit windows of the attic, from an acute angle so that I couldn’t at first see directly out, and while I could see the light that was supreme reality for me – the reality of Monet, of Seurat, Signac and the rest – it was also clear that there was something else – another place, another dimension, another realm – not nice from this angle, but there definitely. It was felt as a revelation. We all wonder about it. Was this confirmation?
Behind me Erin stood watching and I beckoned her to come in. ‘I can see things in the air,’ she said.
I could also see little quirks in the air, but mostly in peripheral vision. I went to the windows and looked down directly at the sunlight in the needles of the dark trees and all of that – everything that lived in sunlight – seemed sealed off from the place where we stood. Then along the drive came a boy carrying a wombat. Well, that’s it. It was all a dream or a hallucination, you might say. You don’t make pets of wombats. They are apparently quite fierce. Yet we saw it later being carried by someone else while other children patted it and seemed to be talking to it. Next day we saw it round the back of the hotel.
Later that day we walked up the highway and then off into what we had been told was an acre or so of the prehistoric forest. That is pre-eucalypt, pre- the indigenous people we believed had been there more than thirty thousand years. In there we saw a large black and white parrot. I have since seen this quite rare species at Maroubra and in the grounds of the University Of Sydney, but nowhere else and never again. Its face was large and flat. Wide but thin.Thin from the front, wide from the side. I knew this bird through the expertise of a Chinese friend who took me on one of his skiing and walking excursions that were his livelihood. In between these he went into central Australia in search of the Night Parrot, which was believed to be extinct, but not by him.
Before we went for a walk under these dark trees which I certainly could not identify, Erin told me that she had seen this forest last night in a vivid dream. In fact she was taken on a tour of the region, often through the air, by a spirit. This connection with things of the spirit, with the next world perhaps, did not dull our sexual pleasure.
We will leave all that now. She was wearing shorts. We walked beyond the prehistoric forest into a vast area of long grass. We had passed an English couple in the forest. the man and the woman had looked compulsively at her legs. This made me uncomfortable. There was a feeling of ‘Whoo hoo, lucky him!’ The woman had also looked at me speculatively.