The train from Sydney stopped at Blenheim at mid-morning. It was due to reach Melbourne at nightfall.

Adrian was disappointed not to get a window seat. He had planned to sit in a corner brooding over the changing landscapes and making notes for a long poem called ‘Pilgrimage to Yarra Glen’.

The poem was to begin with a description of the Southern Tablelands and the reasons (both geographical and spiritual) why that landscape could only provide an imperfect idea of the beauty and majesty of God. After that, the poet would muse in turn over the Riverina, a typical town of medium size in north-eastern Victoria, the hills of the Great Dividing Range and, finally, the outer suburbs of Melbourne. Certain features of each landscape would work on his deepest emotions and prompt him to praise one or other attribute of God. But in each district there would be some fault – a lack of proportion in the scenery, perhaps, or signs of rampant materialism among its inhabitants – that dissuaded the poet from making the place his spiritual home.

In the final section the poet would stand before the Cistercian monastery at Yarra Glen and look out across the farm where the monks worked all year. As he listed and praised the beauties of that place, there would steal over his soul at last an awareness of the true perfection of God.

The last stanza, the climax of the poem, would explain why this quiet valley was charged with the glory of God. It was because every soul in the valley was perfectly obedient to the Will of God. The devout Cistercians had transformed their little corner of Australia into a paradise on earth.

Adrian had the plan of the poem firmly in his mind before the train reached Goulburn. All he had to do was to put it into poetic language. He decided to use blank verse because of the scarcity of rhymes for key words such as triune, essence, attributes and evocative.

When the broad vistas of the Riverina opened up around him he took out paper and a pencil and worked at a rough draft of the first stanza. But whenever he wrote something, the man in the next seat stared at him. The same man had been fidgeting for a long time as though he wanted to start a conversation. Adrian wondered if the fellow had guessed he had just left a seminary. If he was a non-Catholic he might ask malicious questions. And if he realised the notes were for a poem he might think Adrian was one of those sentimental religious cranks like the authors of Protestant hymns or the nuns who wrote Christmas and Easter poems for Catholic magazines.

Adrian got up from his seat. Some of the best Riverina landscapes were slipping away behind the train. He stood in the open space near the main door of the carriage and tried to jot down his emotional response to a long bare hillside with a dam below it and a file of cattle coming down to the golden-brown water.

A young fellow in an army uniform came out of the men’s toilet. When he saw Adrian writing he hung around and tried to look over his shoulder. Adrian stopped writing. The soldier might have thought he was drawing a map of the country around Yass or wherever they were. The fellow was still looking at him. It would be no joke if he was accused of collecting information about the terrain of the Riverina to hand on to an Unfriendly Power.

Adrian saw the sign vacant on the toilet door and knew he could save himself from the Military Police or whoever dealt with suspected spies. He put his pencil in his pocket. He touched himself gingerly on the behind as though he was bursting to empty his bowels. Then he smoothed his notepaper between his fingers. He hoped the soldier knew that some people took their own paper into railway toilets for fear of germs. (Adrian’s father had taught him this when he was a small boy.) He walked up to the toilet door and opened it with his left hand. Just as he entered the toilet he swept his right hand (with his notes for ‘Pilgrimage to Yarra Glen’ lying flat against his palm) past his body in an extravagant gesture that was meant to look like a practice wipe. If the soldier was still looking he would have realised that Adrian was not acting suspiciously after all.

Adrian locked the toilet door behind him and felt safe.  It was the only place where he could think clearly about his poem. He decided he would never finish it on the train. He had forgotten in the seminary how many distractions there were in the world.

He bent down and dropped his notes into the toilet. He held his head low over the bowl and listened to the rattle of the wheels and the roaring of the wind beneath the carriage. The wind would blow his poetic fragments into the shelter of some tussock in a lonely corner of the Riverina. The autumn sun would bleach his words and the winter rains would melt the paper to a sodden pulp. By the time his actual pilgrimage to Yarra Glen was over, his poetry would have dissolved into the land that had inspired it.

He still intended to finish the poem when he got back to Melbourne. But kneeling beside the toilet bowl he discovered something more wonderful than any poem. Near the bottom of the window was a small scratch in the whitish stuff that was supposed to coat the glass and keep the room private. So long as he stayed kneeling, the tiny ragged rectangle of clear glass was only a few inches from his eyes. And through this private window he saw a new country.

At any one moment he glimpsed no more than a splinter of landscape – a sweep of grass beyond a blur of foliage, a steep slope that might have led down to a river valley, a mass of coppery-green treetops below the level of his eye. But these baffling fragments might have been part of a whole land far more complex and variegated than Australia.

Adrian was perhaps the first to discover this new land. He verified this by sitting for a moment in the posture of someone straining on the toilet seat – the scratch on the window was too far from his eyes to reveal anything.

The land was almost certainly uninhabited. (If he had happened to glimpse anything like a roof or a fence he could have blinked his eyes and never seen it again.) And he himself shared, in a sense, in its creation. It was he who assembled the fragments revealed to him and composed them into a pleasing whole.

Adrian had two or three minutes to enjoy his country before someone outside started to wonder why he was so long in the toilet. He kept his eye to the window. Now he saw irregular segments of sunlit grass that could have been fitted together into a noble plain. He wished he could have waited for a glimpse of tranquil brown water to mark his map with networks of rivers and streams. Even so, he had seen enough to prove that Australia could be rearranged into landscapes after his own heart.

Before he left the window he felt an urge to celebrate his discovery. One way would have been to throw himself down on a grassy bank far out in his own country and lie back and look from horizon to horizon and reflect that it was all reserved for him alone.

There was another way. With his eye still at the window he reached inside his trousers and took out a part of himself  that had always responded to stirring landscapes. He did not even have to think of some girl or woman in his country. A peculiar cluster of vague golden hills, detached from all known continents, drifted past him. Before they were gone he had poured out his seed into the toilet bowl.

He got up quickly and buttoned his trousers. He washed his hand and flung some water into the toilet. Then he looked down into the tunnel that opened onto the roaring winds under the train. His poem had gone that way. Now the last blobs of his sperm would be dangling from the bottom rim of the metal until the wind tore them free. They would never reach the new land he had discovered – only hang in tatters from some twig or grass-blade of the ordinary Australia.

Adrian went back to his seat and pretended to fall asleep. But all the way to Yass he considered the consequences of what he had done in the toilet under the influence of his private landscape. It was, of course, a mortal sin – his first since December 1953, when the sight of Denise McNamara had changed his life. All the spiritual merit he had earned in the eighteen months since then, including the value of his masses and communions and acts of self-denial in the seminary, had been wiped out. He was spiritually bankrupt until he made an act of perfect contrition or went to confession. As for his vocation to the Cistercians, God would almost certainly have withdrawn it as soon as he had unbuttoned his trousers.

The train stopped at Yass. On the platform, a few feet from his window, a woman and five or six children were saying goodbye to an elderly lady. The oldest child was a girl about sixteen. She wore a white uniform, as though she worked in a chemist’s shop. (The kindly Catholic chemist had given her a half-hour off to farewell her grandma on the Melbourne train.) She was beautiful – short golden-brown curls, a sprinkling of faint freckles and the innocent quizzical expression that only Catholic girls had. He wondered what she would do if the station master suddenly broadcast through the loudspeakers: ‘Your attention, please. The foreman of a repair gang has just reported evidence that an unnatural act was committed on the Melbourne train some miles out of Yass. The train will be delayed briefly while railway detectives conduct a search of all carriages for the male passenger responsible. Thank you!’ Adrian saw her rushing to drag her grandma back from the contaminated train. But her grandma was in no danger. And even if the girl herself boarded the train and sat in the seat beside him he would have behaved like a Catholic gentleman.

He stared at the girl’s face until the train pulled away from the platform. The mere sight of her lips parting in a half-smile was enough to make him a changed man. He hated himself for committing a sordid sin only a few miles out of her home town. She could rescue him just as Denise had done long before. In the next Christmas holidays he would come back to Yass and stay at a hotel and go into every chemist’s shop in town until he found her. He would buy a packet of some innocent medicine (throat pastilles or scalp lotion—nothing to do with the intimate parts of the body!) and ask her the times of Sunday masses at the Catholic church. He would sit through every mass until he saw her. Outside the church afterwards he would walk past her. She would greet him and introduce him to her parents. When they learned he was alone in Yass they would invite him home to Sunday dinner. The rest would follow naturally. He knew exactly what to do – he had done it all before with Denise McNamara.

But there were thousands of beautiful young Catholic girls in Melbourne. He might even meet one of them on the following Saturday evening when he went to confession to get rid of his mortal sin. It was even possible that the girl who was meant to save him was on the train with him at that moment. (God might have intended him to meet her on the very day he left the seminary.) He should have searched the train at Blenheim and found her and then thought of her all the way through the Riverina instead of crouching in the toilet and sinning like a common pervert.

He got up and walked the length of the train. He glanced at every female passenger and even at the young women behind the counter in the dining car. (God sometimes worked in mysterious ways.) There were no young women of his own age with Catholic faces – unless they were in one of the toilets, but he would not have dared to look at a girl on her way back from the ladies’ room.

The most inspiring Catholic face on the train belonged to a young mother of three. He went back to his seat and thought of himself as the father of a young family. The children were all in bed. He and his wife were sitting by the fire confiding some of their dreams and ambitions to each other. Late in the evening he showed her some old photographs of himself. He started with a snap taken in the backyard at Accrington. While she marvelled at the dreariness of his early environment, a photo fell from the bundle in his lap and lay on the floor face up. His wife picked it up and said, ‘What on earth is this?’

It was one of the pictures that Cerini had given him years before at Blenheim – a view of the Cistercian monastery at Yarra Glen. While he tried to explain what the photo had once meant to him, his voice quavered. He realised he had wasted his life. He had a lovely young wife and several children and it was years since he had committed a mortal sin. But far away under the right sky, in a lonely valley in the Warburton Ranges, the white-robed Cistercians in their dark choir stalls were chanting the office of Compline, and he should have been among them.

The train was pulling into Gundagai. Adrian thanked God he had remembered his true vocation before he was bound for life by the sacrament of matrimony. Luckily the girl at Yass had barely noticed him looking at her, so she wouldn’t be disappointed if he made no effort to meet her again. He kept his eyes closed while the train was stopped at Gundagai in case some other girl was seeing her grandmother off.

Past Gundagai he went over his plans to pass his matric exam and join the Cistercians. The only problem was his mortal sin. He would confess it the very next Saturday. After that he would regard himself as a Cistercian postulant and regulate his life as though he was already in the monastery – mass every morning, special prayers eight times a day, frugal meals, silence (unless his parents spoke to him) and solid work for the rest of the time (his studies, of course, but after the exams he could try a bit of manual labour in the backyard).

Late in the afternoon when the train reached Albury, Adrian still considered himself a Cistercian. Across the Murray and into Victoria he thought of the great monastic revival sweeping America. If it had spread to Australia there might not be room for him at Yarra Glen. But then he remembered from Elected Silence that the monks always made a new foundation whenever an existing monastery became too crowded.

Adrian suddenly realised what this meant. He might not spend the rest of his life in those few paddocks at Yarra Glen. Somewhere else in Australia was a landscape that would one day belong to the Cistercians. Adrian himself might be sent by his abbot to choose the site of his new monastery. How would he decide on a fitting landscape?

The train was somewhere near Wangaratta. He would practise assessing landscapes according to the spiritual uplift they provided. It was the sort of task he could never grow tired of. And to do it in the service of God made it doubly satisfying.

He tried to contemplate a dry hillside lightly strewn with granite boulders. But he was not being entirely honest with himself. He knew now that looking at landscapes and observing their effect on his emotions was what he really wanted for his life’s work. Why, then, was he planning to join an enclosed order? As a Cistercian he would probably spend the rest of his life looking at only one landscape. There was only a slender chance that the abbot would send him out to prospect for the site of a new foundation. (If the abbot learned of his passion for landscapes he would probably keep him locked up at Yarra Glen away from temptation.)

The train was slowing down, although there was no sign of a town. Adrian saw a sign beside the track: twenty mile creek. He whispered the name aloud like a prayer and thought of a broad shining stream. It was a fitting place to discover his true vocation at last.

The train was barely moving. There were men beside the track. A bridge was under repair. Adrian was looking at things honestly for the first time in his life. What he had been searching for was not the perfect religious order but the perfect landscape. He was not called to be a priest. From that moment on he was a poet in search of his ideal landscape.

The ground fell away beside the train. Adrian’s carriage crossed a small bridge. Beneath the bridge was a dried-up watercourse a few yards wide with eroded banks. This was Twenty Mile Creek. Its dry runnels wandered away across a parched paddock. Adrian saw clumps of grass growing from its bed and decided that whoever named the creek must have been seeing things.

 

 

 

The above is an extract from A Season on Earth, a novel by Gerald Murnane, available now from Text Publishing

Photograph © Mick Stanic

Mother and Son:
Life and Fate
Distributed Denial of Service