I was not yet born when my grandfather, Carew, began sleeping out of doors. He was sixty years of age then, an engineer, living in a wooden house along the Georges River with his second wife, Beatrice, who was not my grandmother. I’m told it was a hot summer, long and humid, when he moved a camp bed out onto the veranda beside his canvas chair and telescope.
The telescope was part of his engagement with astronomy; looking at the stars and the study of magnetics were enthusiasms for him, almost passions, by all accounts. And when I say, ‘by all accounts’ I invariably mean my mother’s opinion of the father she held in wavering ambivalence all her life. Grandfather rigged up a mosquito net that draped over the telescope, and covered the bed like a tent. It was a late summer that year and the hot nights went on well into March, by which time he must have become accustomed to sleeping under the night skies.
Then he went on a walking tour down around Canberra with a friend of his. Six nights in a sleeping bag, out under the country stars, which shine a lot clearer than those that struggle through the urban glow. The second night after he came back, he moved out onto the decking. By then it was colder, so he added a sleeping bag instead of the light cotton sarongs of summer. Thus began his predilection for sleeping out of doors, which was to last the rest of his life.
What Beatrice thought about it is unclear. As his second wife, she was always known as Beatrice by the family. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, his first wife, was known as Gran Carew. Beatrice and my grandfather had been married for fifteen years at that time, past the harried dependency of skin fever, although he assured me when I had grown to an age where such conversations were possible, that his moving out of doors was not an act of celibacy. Often he would leave the marital bed to retire to the camp bed under the skies; certainly their relationship was affectionate and tender for as long as they both lived.
There was a sunroof over half the decking, jutting out from the red tiles and guttering that protected him against southerly and westerly winds. Later on, he discarded the sleeping bag as too restricting in favour of a waterproofed bedroll of his own design. Then he stayed out where he could see the stars on clear nights and be rained on when the weather turned. This was the situation of my grandfather’s sleeping arrangements for as far back as I can remember.
The family reacted with little fuss, and while it was by far the most eccentric behaviour of his generation, family reminiscences never failed to include a forbear who played the piano in the nude, often in public. Apart from Beatrice, grandfather’s sleeping arrangements made no impact on anyone’s daily life. I suppose, while his family of the first marriage were, on the surface, civilly resigned to his second marriage, it must have hinted at an underlying dissatisfaction on his part, which perhaps went some way to satisfying Gran Carew’s still smouldering rancour.
Not that he was without allies in the family. There were four grown children, including my mother. The eldest, my Uncle Danny, was very close to his father, often visiting when in Sydney, sending his two sons, twins Wilbur and Tom, my cousins, to stay during the school holidays. Mother, the youngest, was less enthusiastic, caught between conflicting loyalties and feeling more comfortable staying close to her mother than having much to do with ‘that Beatrice’, as she was invariable referred to. At the time Grandfather began his al fresco sleeping, Mum was away at college.
When the cousins, who are 12 years older than me, came to stay with Grandfather Carew, they joined him out on the decking during the hot summer nights. Camp beds were bought and mosquito tents were arranged to cover most of the decking. Soon neighbouring children lobbied strongly to be allowed to join. Friends were invited, word spread, so that by the second summer there were ten to fifteen beds and sleeping bags out on the decking, their occupants being introduced to the stars, discovering constellations and hearing yarns long into the night. It wasn’t just young people; parents came with their children and some of Grandfather’s camping friends would stay on weekends.
When Mum came home from college she was invited and felt she had to join in. By this time other neighbours had begun to emulate them and the suburb got written up in the local papers as the Bayside Bivouac, and Grandfather as The Fresh Air Fanatic.
During this initial burst of notoriety, Grandfather’s predilections came under scrutiny. They were found to be of refreshing normalcy, apart from his habit of sleeping out of doors. Not even the most enthusiastic wowser could find anything to condemn in that. Every morning he would rise, roll up his sleeping kit and stow it in a wooden cupboard on the veranda. His sleeping companions had to obey this single rule; all beds and sleeping bags had to be removed during the day, sleeping on the decking was a night time only occupation. He would shower, shave and breakfast and leave on the 7.45 train to the city where he worked as engineering architect. At night, he came home, slightly later than most, eat dinner, read, talk with whoever was joining him, arrange the camp beds out on the decking and endeavour to be asleep before midnight, a task not always accomplished, especially on weekends when his companions were keen to continue the speculative conversations that were a noted part of the experience.
As can be imagined, after summer the popularity of sleeping out of doors waned. Some brave hearts would continue on for a few weekends, especially if the weather stayed warm, but the holiday camp atmosphere was missing, and by mid-April, Grandfather was usually left in solitary occupancy of his decking.
This became a routine for some years, until gradually his behaviour began to change. It was as though he gave himself permission to loosen his ties to the commonplace.
On weekends he began to take the train on Friday night to the edge of the Royal National Park, packing a small hiking tent and camping equipment. During the colder months he invariably went alone, only occasionally would one of his friends accompany him. In summer, he would organise whoever was sleeping with him on the decking into a group and Grandfather’s camping trips became a feature of many youngsters’ summer holidays. However, for much of the time he was on his own, a fact that appeared to disturb him not at all.
By all accounts, there were few other signs of eccentricity about him then; he was in all respects a loving husband and father, an urbane and friendly companion and colleague. To outward appearances, he was simply a man who liked to sleep out doors and go camping on the weekend. If, after a while, photographs show him somewhat more weather beaten, well, he was in his sixties so it seemed entirely appropriate.
I was two years of age when he began to go walkabout, as the family described it. By now he was in his late sixties and semi-retired from the firm of architects, able to take time off between projects. He began going further afield, exploring some of the more remote parts of the state, spending longer away, and returning unexpectedly. Once he made it onto the national news, despite the protests of his wife that he was sure to be fine. He had gone walking north from Hay in the south west and when my mother repeated to Grandmother Carew a casual remark by Beatrice that she had expected him back a few days before, the situation rapidly escalated. The alarm was raised with the police in Hay and aircraft were sent out to search for him.
Five days later he walked in from the desert and was waiting for the bus to Sydney when someone recognised him from the widely distributed photo. After thanking everyone for taking so much trouble, his laconic remark was widely reported; “When a man knows where he’s going, he can’t be said to be lost.”
The pact between he and Beatrice became even closer after that. As if by agreement, she rarely spoke of his whereabouts.
My memories of Grandfather start about the time I was four. Mum and I would visit when we were in Sydney and although I was too young to join him on the decking, I do remember the slow, smiling, grizzled man with the grey beard. Sometimes when we stayed the night I would creep out in the early hours and climb in beside him, snuggling in against his back, the waterproof crackling, enveloped in the pungent smell of an older man. He would enquire in a bell-like voice, “Is that the boy called Andrew Murray?” “Yes.” “Is he warm and dry?” “Yes.” “And is he as quiet as a possum?” “Yes.” “Good!”
I remember being bounced on his knees, which seemed like mountains, laughing down at his big smiling face, held by arms that were like strong-knotted ropes. He was substantially bald, grey hair tonsured around his weather-beaten head.
My visits were intermittent but he always greeted me warmly, making a fuss of how much I’d grown, how much more of a young man I’d become. I like to think we had a special relationship but on talking with my cousins I’m aware that most of us have the same opinion.
There were years when we visited Sydney but despite my appeals would not go out to Grandfather’s house as he was away somewhere. Mum was never very familiar with Beatrice, and without Grandfather there was no reason to visit. I failed to understand, the same as I could not understand Mum’s lifelong impatience with her father’s custom of disappearing into the bush for weeks at a time. I recall the conversations, the half-worried, half-angry exchanges between my parents, Dad refusing to supply supportive disapproval. “It’s just the way he is, what harm is he doing?” was his mild response, which infuriated Mum. “How can you say that? He could be anywhere, anything could happen to him and we’d never know. And Beatrice is hopeless, just as bad as he is. I sometimes wonder if she cares at all.”
“Ah now, I think that’s a bit unfair.” “Unfair? Why if she …” and so it would go.
Mum was genuinely worried. By now Grandfather’s absences had become longer, stretching from weeks into months to whole seasons. He had grown into a great traveller but without the comforts of the tourist. His journeys were more in the way of explorations or pilgrimages. He mostly walked, usually in remote regions, sleeping out of doors, on the outskirts of towns, in deserts, or jungles, or mountains. There was no telling where his next postcard would arrive from: Darwin, Tasmania, Broome or Alice Springs. They were usually sparked by something he had seen or somebody he met that he imagined would be of interest to us. At that stage I was collecting comics and I would occasionally receive in the post an old DC comic of Superman or Green Lantern he came across in a country shop. I loved it that he was thinking about me as he went around. It made me feel rich.
Mum would get descriptions of landscapes, sunrises and sunsets, then stars in the night skies. Although she was forever angry with him, it was not uncommon for her to become misty-eyed when he would write, “Ah dear Ellen, you should have seen it, you’d have loved it.”
He was familiar with aborigine groups and families all over the country, in deserts and jungles, seemingly accepted seamlessly as he tramped through. His knowledge of the night time starry skies deepened and became broader with the hours spent with other elders away from campfires.
Once when I was eleven years old he turned up unexpectedly at our house. I had not seen him for some years and at first did not recognise the figure humping his swag up the driveway. Only a smiling lift of the by-now white bushy eyebrows and an outstretched arm made him known.
I ran towards him yelling to Mum in the kitchen, “It’s Grandad, he’s here.”
At this stage he was a considerably weathered man. Brown as a nut, sun-tanned and wind blown, dressed in light cotton and waterproofs. He was strong and lithe, able to whirl a charging boy off his feet and high into the air. The arms that held me were strong with the same strength of years before. Mum came out and threw her arms around him and brought him indoors. It was the first time he had been to our house. After tea he unwrapped a piece of blue crystal he brought as a gift. He had found it in the desert. It is still there on my parents’ sideboard. For me, he had some comics.
He stayed two weeks with us, the longest time he and Mum had ever spent together, she told me later. The only slight contention came when he started to move his bedroll outside on the back lawn. Mum tried to stop him but he took her by both elbows, looked at her solemnly and said: “Now Ellen, you know this is what I do.” You could see the fight ready to boil over inside Mum, but whatever it was, his tone, a brief moment of hesitation, or perhaps just loving regard on her part, the tension left her and she agreed. We all lent Grandfather a hand to unroll his sleeping gear on the grass near the hoist.
In the morning he left, he was gone in the early hours with only Mum up to see him walk down the road.
He was present when both wives, current and former, died. Attentive among the visitors at Grandmother Carew’s after she suffered a coronary and died in hospital, he was an important part of the passing. At the funeral he sat near the front, greeting relatives, mildly accepting the occasional rebuke from some of Grandmother’s relatives who could not let it go. He had a special warm greeting for his grandchildren. Soon after the ceremony he left with Beatrice, quietly. I was struck by how his appearance differed from those of the other older men at the funeral, not only how he was dressed in layers of light wool as opposed to their dark suits but mainly by his demeanour. His eyes were alive as if filled with horizons, the tilt of his head as if alertly listening to wind in the trees, his smile, easy, warm, encompassing as if every stranger was a companion.
From when he first began, the only time he slept indoors was during Beatrice’s last illness. He moved a fold-up bed into the bedroom and slept beside her during the months when she was slowly wasting away. They were devoted to one another. When I visited them, the atmosphere of the room was unlike any sick room; there was quiet laughter, smiling faces, interest in the visitor and continuous strong current of affection between the two of them. Their attachment was genuine and sustaining – when she died he was holding her hand, quietly sobbing.
Afterwards, members of the family invited him to come and live with them but he politely refused, preferring to keep on the house Beatrice and he lived in during their life together. At this stage, I was at university in Sydney, sharing a student house in the inner city. Mum asked me to keep an eye on Grandfather, to visit whenever I could. Although as disregarding as most young men of that age, I really did not need much encouragement. Grandfather still loomed large in my life.
My first visit was on a Saturday afternoon after a football match at a nearby oval in the Sutherland shire. I put a call through on the off chance that he would be at home and received an enthusiastic invitation. A car dropped me off at the house and he must have been watching for he greeted me from the front step as I walked up the driveway.
It was some months since the funeral and mindful of Mum’s anxieties I was alert for any signs of decay or neglect in Grandfather or in the house. There were none – her fears of an old man living on his own and wasting away were groundless. He was almost spritely, moving around the kitchen, making tea with alacrity that belied his age, his complexion clear, his voice strong and welcoming. Perhaps he was a slighter than I remembered. By now I towered over him and outweighed him by half as much again.
He seemed glad to see me, leading me into the pristine interior of the house, which was mercifully free of that sour smell so often associated with old people living on their own. He peppered me with questions about studies, the family, living conditions, interests, football. We spent a rewarding afternoon together. After tea he took me outside to his workshop where he explained a new interest he was exploring – magnetic astronomy. It involved discovering and tracking streams of magnetic energy flowing through the universe, and registering their influence on the planets. I’m a humanities graduate myself so much of the technical explanations passed over my head. He had a series of wires strung between posts in the back yard, attached to a rotor. The object was to get the rotor to spin. He was not having too much luck, he conceded. I noticed his bedroll was still on the decking, on a raised wooden bedframe.
When it came time for me to leave, he made the offer of a bed for the night. It was a good walk to the station and as he explained, there was no one else using the bedrooms. I refused, being already committed elsewhere. As I left I promised to come and spend a weekend with him soon.
I was as self-absorbed as most young people of that age with a life to lead and spending nights with an old man, in the suburbs, no matter how fascinating, did not rate highly as a priority. I sensed he understood this better than me as he waved from the front gate.
Some months later, I was again in the vicinity and telephoned but got no response. Soon afterwards Mum phoned to say no one had heard from him and asked me to pay him a visit to see if he was all right. On this occasion the house was locked up, its windows as empty as the Saturday afternoon suburban street. I waked around the side but everything was closed up tightly. The only alteration was the construction of a wooden gazebo-style structure in the middle of the back lawn. It had four decorative wooden panels, one at each corner, a small trellis around the sides and was open to the sky. Three steps led up to the platform. Wires trailed across the lawn to the wooden shed where Grandfather kept his instruments. I peered through the glass window at the wavering gauges and flickering green lights on the computers. Whatever else Grandfather was doing, he was keeping up with the magnetic experiments.
I felt his presence everywhere; it was as if he had simply walked around the corner that minute. I’m not usually given to premonitions but I knew there was nothing wrong with him, he had simply gone walkabout again.
Mum was less convinced, of course and it was only with unaccustomed firmness that I convinced her not to involve the authorities again. I did, however, begin to phone him regularly and about five weeks later he picked up the receiver to answer. Yes, he’d been away. Oh, just here and there. No, my mother shouldn’t worry and yes, he understood that now he was on his own someone should be told whenever he went away.
“Not that it will make any difference, Andrew,” he said when I visited him the next weekend. “All that will do is let her know that I am not here. It doesn’t mean she will necessarily know where I am.”
This time I did stay overnight and learned some more of the ‘rivers of the universe’, as he termed his experiments with stellar magnetics. The structure on the lawn had been built to his design and featured a freely revolving platform that rose from the floor by means of leavers and springs. When not in use it fitted back into the floor. So fine was the woodwork that it was indistinguishable from the rest of the floor. When released by the operation of a lever, it became a sleeping platform, six inches clear of the floor. It spun at the touch of a finger, seemingly frictionless. “Ball bearings, lots of ball bearings,” he explained, beaming.
The purpose, he explained to me, was to align the sleeping body with the stars in the night sky. There were celestial flows of energy sweeping the universe like mighty invisible rivers. While he had little success registering their influence on the sensitive instruments in the shed, he did believe that a properly aligned sleeper could “use them to get around. You know Andrew, these are very powerful tides and currents.” As to how someone could align with these forces? “Ah! That’s the trick, isn’t it? There’s nothing to it when you know how. There are some places where it is much easier to feel the flows. Once you begin to recognise it, it becomes easier.”
I slept on a camp bed on the decking that night while Grandfather lay down on his platform. It was mild and warm with clear skies and a crescent moon. Sometime during the morning I woke and looked across at the platform. It was moving like the needle of a compass, edging back and forward as if controlled by invisible forces. As I watched, the platform slowly made a complete circuit, stopping and starting. It was then I noticed that Grandfather was awake and smiling broadly at my astonishment.
“See, I told you there is nothing to it.” He sat up and the movement stopped.
“Come on, try it, it’s really quite strong tonight.”
“But what do I do?”
“Nothing, come on.”
He laid me down on the platform, steadying it until it was aligned to his satisfaction.
“Now watch the sky, feel the stars flow, become aware of your freedom in the universe.”
He was a master, there is no doubt in my mind now. That first night under his instruction, I became aware and felt enough to know there are currents in the skies, forces unexplained and untapped by mankind.
“Let go, feel the stars,” he counselled from the edge of the platform and it was undoubtedly due to his ability that something happened. The platform did move, the angle of the sky altering as I felt something fluttering though the edges of my awareness, a cool, strong force that seemed to pass through and move me with ineffable power.
After that I stayed with Grandfather many nights, sitting up into the early hours of the morning, watching him spin effortlessly like a top, moving in response to the currents of the skies, this way and that. Sometimes he spun so fast it seemed as though he would fly off the platform, other times he moved slightly, sensitively aligning though the night. I occasionally took my place on the platform but perhaps I was too self-conscious, as I never managed more than a slight vibration.
Some months later, he told me he was going away again.
“Oh! Down south some place, perhaps I’ll call in on your mother.” The following weekend, more out of habit than anything I went to the house and stayed overnight on my own. At one stage I abandoned my camp bed, raised the platform and lay down under the stars. Nothing happened, there was no flux, no currents and some time near the greying dawn, I drifted off to sleep. My dreams were of rivers of stars, moving galaxies of light swirling inexorably, unmeasurable, and of Grandfather.
I got a call later from Mum, distraught. Grandfather had been admitted to a country hospital in South Australia for observation. Discovered by local police encamped on the banks of a river, he was fairly weak, seemingly unable to get out of his bedroll. They brought him in for questioning and despite his protests he was delivered to the hospital for observation. The authorities threatened to keep him there unless he told them his next of kin. Mum reassured them I would be there if they sent him home.
He made it back before me and was outside on the decking, drinking tea, when I arrived. His greeting was as affectionate as ever but despite his protests that it had all been a silly mix up, there was something in his demeanour that reinforced the fact he was an old man. He seemed pleased to be home and bore the police and the doctors no ill will. “They were doing what they thought was best for me,” he said. But it appeared as if he had reached some kind of decision. “I’m glad you’re here Andrew, because to use the lawyer’s terms, all my effects and testaments are in the bureau here. It’s fairly straightforward, and anticipating your permission, I’ve made you my executor.” I made the usual noises, pointing out that if he stayed at home nothing would happen to him and he would live for many more years.
He smiled that sweet smile, putting his hand on my arm. “I am going away again, Andrew, soon. Nothing bad is going to happen to me. And I am always at home wherever I am, you know that.”
We understood one another and when he reached around to hug me I began to cry like a child. He patted my shoulders, reaching up, murmuring comforting words.
That night I watched as he laid out his bedroll on the platform and lay down under the sky. He looked across at me and lifted a hand. “Don’t worry, Andrew. It’s a big universe and there are many ways of getting around. With a bit of luck we’ll find out who we are and what we’re looking for.” He smiled and lay back.
Soon the platform began to turn, slowly at first, one way, then the other, the arcs becoming progressively broader until it was turning complete circles. Then it picked up speed. I watched, filled with grief, only too aware of what was taking place. The night had some cloud, not many stars to be seen through the glow of the city. My vigil lasted well into the night, watching as Grandfather spun like a top, silently whirling in obedience to the forces of the cosmos. Somewhere shortly after three o’clock, the platform began to slow, gradually losing its impetus, gently coming to a complete stop. He did not move, and I knew he was gone.
I sat down on the decking to wait for morning. A cool breeze sprung up, the clouds clearing, unveiling the full canopy of stars. I lay back, looking at the tiny pinpricks of light, wondering around which of them my Grandfather was whirling and spinning.