— first thing Tomas saw in Sydney was the grey ceiling and green walls of a hospital ward. He had no memory of arriving there. He was so sick he did not attempt to speak. His head was on fire and his wind whistled through a little knothole in his splintery wooden throat.
This went on for some days, and some parts of him were melted away by this experience, never to return.
The hospital doctors seemed pleasantly surprised when he recovered the use of his limbs. Tomas understood from them that he had returned from the dead and should walk lightly as a ghost. As he did not speak English, this may not have been quite what they said. When they released him from the hospital, with some difficulty he found his way back to the dock. The Orvietto was long gone, but in fact the thought of shovelling coal in the belly of any ship was enough to close up his throat again. He had some of the strange silver shillings of this country, so he went to a pub nearby. There he was lucky to hear a Brazilian voice. This was Ovidio, from Santos, who took pity on him.
‘You’re sick, man, I can see it.’
Tomas said he needed some sort of work nonetheless.
‘You can have my job. I am leaving tomorrow on the Maheno.’
Ovidio took him straight to the kitchen where he worked washing dishes, and the exchange was done.
The kitchen was filthy, but not much worse than a ship’s galley. Tomas worked below a pavement grate. He could look up and see ankles passing over his head, and beyond them a streetlamp, telegraph wires, sky. He did not learn much English in the kitchen, where they spoke mainly Cantonese, but he found he could survive on the money they gave him. Also, at the end of a day’s work, there was plenty to eat.
He would finish work at eight or nine in the evening. At first he was dismayed to find that the pubs were all shut from six o’clock, but it was not long before he discovered the little places in back lanes where he could go in and drink. The beer was bad, but the wine was worse, so Tomas became used to beer. He also found the girls who could be bought for the night. Between the beer and the girls, he never had any money.
Not all the doss houses had bedbugs, but he preferred to sleep outdoors when he could. He stole extra blankets to add to his bed roll.
This place was called Woolloomooloo. It was full of sailors, some of them Sicilian fishermen. One day Tomas managed a halting conversation with one of the Sicilians, Giro. After that, he sometimes went out fishing on Giro’s boat. But he did not want to marry Giro’s daughter, so he kept some distance.
On Sundays, the Dom was a good place for a wash, and cost nothing. He would go there, scrub the greasetrap smell off himself, spend a little time sitting in the stand watching the swimmers, then go to the Art Gallery up on the hill. There was a painting of charging cavalry that he liked to watch. From there he could walk out to join the crowds in the Domain listening to the rabble-rousers on their ladders. Gradually, over the years, Tomas understood more and more of their jokes. The politics of this country, however, he never understood. He knew nothing about sheep. He did not have a union. He was scared of both communists and priests. He knew nothing about the British Empire. If this was a time of depression, he had never known a better.
He watched the Harbour Bridge being built, steel fingers creeping up and out into the sky until it looked as if they must collapse. Then, one year, the fingers touched, and there was an arch, something gods might make.
So Tomas was alive. Yet he never really found his feet in Sydney, remaining always an outsider with a suspicious mop of hair.
What he loved most of all was to lie under the giant fig trees along the point from the public baths. During the day, he could watch the ships come in to the harbour, and if he saw a Brazilian flag, or even a Portuguese one, he could follow it to see where it tied up. In this way he sometimes found people who talked his mother tongue and could bring him news from home.
He loved the fig trees because they reminded him of the great rainforest trees he knew as a child. They had fat bearded trunks, and thick buttress roots that snaked away across the ground. Between those roots were sheltered pockets where Tomas could lie like a secret, out of the wind, out of the sun. Little spots of floating light would fall on him through the sifting leaves, but even on the hottest days, the fig trees gave him cool shade.
Tomas loved to look up into the canopy, which receded as if infinitely into the sky above. The tracery of branches was as noble as the beams of a cathedral but so much more subtle and inventive. Each clump of oval leaves was like the applause of angels.
Fig tree bark was like elephant skin, smooth and dense, pitted and creased with the history of its slow relentless growth. The fig trees swallowed stones and strangled lesser trees. They covered up the grass with a carpet of curled leaves. Their branches, some thicker than a horse, hovered above the ground and stretched out imponderably towards the light, ever striving to spread beyond the tree’s self-created darkness. Beneath the fig trees, Tomas felt safe.
At night, he liked to return to his favourite tree, one of the largest, and roll himself up in his blankets to sleep. One night, he was there when a storm swept up from the south, heralded by lightning and cannonades of thunder. Violent wind tore at the trees and slapped the ships about in the harbour, but Tomas felt secure where he lay. When it came, the rain roared down in sheets, making a curtain beyond the canopy, but he was dry beneath one of the thickest branches of his tree, which leaned over him like a protective mother.
Blayne, wanting a holiday job to supplement his scholarship, joined the Sydney Council Works department as a labourer. Such jobs were still scarce. Blayne was at pains to disguise his identity from the blokes on his gang, and claimed to be newly arrived in the city from the country. After the first day, the blisters on his hands gave him away. They called him sweetheart and precious, but he kept his head down and worked doggedly until Albert, the foreman, told him to slow down. There was nothing to be gained by fast work. There was always another hole waiting to be dug.
He was still new when a ripper of a storm smashed through the city. The gang was shifted off the Bay Street reconstruction to clean up the damage. They worked through Hyde Park and across the Domain, piling debris onto carts and cutting up fallen trees. A week later, they had reached the waterside near Mrs Macquarie’s chair, one of Blayne’s favourite places. He was dismayed to see that one of the big old Moreton Bay figs had lost a limb, leaving a gaping yellow wound in its side.
The branch was bigger than any of the trees they had cleared up so far. It would take them days to cut it up and cart it away. The largest part was wedged between the buttress roots of the tree. Albert could see no way to get it out without cutting the roots. They left it til last. The Works Engineer, accompanied by a gardener, came down to look at the problem.
‘I can patch the hole in the tree, but don’t you damage those roots,’ the gardener demanded.
‘It’s not good timber, native fig,’ Albert suggested.
‘It’s a good big tree,’ the gardener said.
The engineer shrugged. In the end, they made a job of it. They drove spikes into the log. They looped ropes over the other branches of the tree, and rigged block and tackle. Bit by bit they lifted the log out of the hollow it had stamped into the ground, first one end, then the other, until it was high enough to push the cart in underneath.
It was while helping drag the cart forward that Blayne discovered the crushed blankets in the hollow beneath the tree, and then, within the blankets, the flattened corpse.
The discovery of this unknown man, angular and stiff as a Byzantine icon imprinted on the parchment of compressed leaves, had a lifelong impact upon Blayne. On the day he was calm and matter of fact, joking with the others, waiting patiently for their new instructions and eventually, when ordered, shovelling the body into bags to be taken away; but, ever after, the memory of the exploded head, like a raisin crushed underfoot, would return to him unbidden and send flares of electric pain through his limbs and out into the world. The moments illuminated by these excoriating flashbacks were then in turn stamped upon his memory.
He rarely talked about the flat man, whose name, he was told later, was Tomas Moraes, a vagabond, who died far from home. He could silence a room with the ghoulish tale but it always seemed cheap to do so. He would tell the story when drunk, to show off among men, and then he would regret it.
Blayne returned to university and completed his degree. He became an industrial chemist. During the war, he was an essential worker making fuels and lubricants. Certain smells and textures he encountered in his work made him flinch, and Tomas would spark in his mind.
He met the woman who would become his wife at a tennis party. She asked about his name. He usually did not answer that question, but he wanted to try. ‘Blayne means twin, apparently. My mother picked the name.’
She waited for more. His voice thickened with the discomfort of revelation: ‘I had a brother, but he died when we were born.’ He could not say any more, but she showed a sympathetic understanding that this history might affect him. At that moment, the image of Tomas blinded him. He did not tell her about Tomas until many years later.
The tear in the fig tree did not repair well. It rotted. In 1953, the tree was cut down and replaced by another. Blayne was aware of this because he did not avoid the area — quite the reverse. In 1957, he told his two sons, then aged sixteen and fourteen, about Tomas, while they were standing by the spot. They were curious, but unaffected. Upon reflection, Blayne decided that there were many things that could not be passed on. What was passed on followed some chain of cause and effect that evaded observation.
Fifteen years later, however, one of his sons asked him for the story again.
When he did tell Claudia, his wife, about Tomas, he chose what he hoped was an insignificant moment. They were at breakfast. She was thinking of buying a dress. They were planning a holiday, and some chance combination of ideas brought the story out. This was in 1985 — he was retired, and they now had the money and the time for travel.
‘I once — I don’t think I’ve ever told you this — saw a man crushed completely flat by a Moreton Bay fig.’
‘I don’t mean I saw him being crushed. We lifted up this log and there he was. It was when I was at uni, one summer, ’36, working as a labourer.’
Claudia hardly wanted to know, but having embarked on the tale, he told her everything. He had some trouble describing the smell, which was putrid, but spiced with fig and sawdust and the harbour breeze. Later she asked him why he had not told her before. Unable to explain, he said it was not a nice story, and apologised.
They went to Egypt, Israel and Jordan. Blayne was struck by the feeling that his life was small and the world was large. He came home to Rose Bay and had a heart attack — not fatal, but the crushing pain certainly made him think of Tomas. He also thought of slide rules, the birth of his sons, the mantelpiece, dog biscuits, his wife like an ivory tower, his desk, the sense of success, of failure, shame, roses, the harbour, and clumps of oval leaves like the applause of angels. After —
© 2020 Craig Bingham
Moreton Bay Fig photo credits: (1) Sunrise tree by Phil Sheard, modified by CB; (2) Ficus macrophylla by Tony Rodd, modified by CB. (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)