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              Volume 10 |Issue 37 | September 30, 2011 |


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The Big Wheel

Andrew Eagle

Bulgarian steam engine like my great grandfather's.
Steam engine in Tenterfield, New South Wales, similar to my great grandfather's.

Hatiya, Noakhali
In the dawn I heard the first light chanting across the rice paddies and the islands of forest where the households lay; over the ponds and into the echoes and recesses of the St Martin's canal that runs north-south by the main road. I saw the circular rumble of the muscular wooden wheels marking their time as steadily as the rhythmic minute hand on a clock. This was the day's birth and the wheels made record of it.

Out front was a bullock that can't have harboured the slightest query of what he was doing or what he was about. He can't have, because as surely as the sun followed its circular twenty-four, similarly it was with the wheels behind him, the wheels which bid he push on. Day upon day upon day was in the turn of those wheels. It was his narrative.

And being as natural as the tall palms and the rain trees, as endemic as the earthen pots each winter tied to the date palms to collect sap, it was usual that for me too the bullock and his cart at first raised no question.

Tullamore, New South Wales

The approaching evening for my great grandfather would at one time have meant finding a suitable campsite, preferably with a watercourse of some kind nearby so as to make a billy boil. He would've had to think of his family, his wife and the many children bundled up and piled upon his steam engine with those large iron wheels, flat fisted and suitable not for railway tracks but for the road.

With the hissing sight and rusting sound he was busy welding past with future, all those years forward in what must have been the 1920s; the time when he drove his family across the back of New South Wales from the Tullamore wheat fields to the Pilliga Scrub, in that week or two journey across the Orana district.

The nights he would light with his violin.

My grandmother wasn't there but she was a romanticist at heart, the way she painted the history with the details of longing retained after maybe eighty years. She wasn't there and yet it was her history; why I take now the liberty to tell it in the outline of my voice. Why I remember Tullamore, a place I've never been.

Bullock cart in India. Photos: courtesy

That part of her life experience had eluded her as she'd been stuck in that boarding school in the pretty little village of Carcoar, with the nuns. She'd always wanted out, to spend every moment with parents and brothers and sisters, or at least with her grandmother on the farm; so much that she'd once prayed for chicken pox such that the nuns would take pity and send her home from fear of the other school girls being infected.

That prayer returned, she explained, for in the turn of the wheel she did contract chicken pox, except that the nuns shut her instead in an attic, alone and lonely, until the contagion dissipated. It was a lesson in what not to pray for, a lesson she took to the following century to tell a grandson.

Nonetheless her heart was there still, on the back of her father's steam engine with her mother and brothers and sisters, as it puffed the miles along the dusty roads. And in that sense the experience she had, despite the absence of her presence.

Hatiya, Noakhali

It's not usual to have your grandmother's memories but standing there in the turn of the wheel morning on the Bengali island I felt that. Away to the north were landholdings and dusty country laneways: perhaps flatter and rice-inclined, and perhaps without the old man's lean of the whiskery-barked eucalypts or the gentleman-hop of the kangaroos, but… it was her father's time returned. And now it was mine.

It's not usual to without the blink of eye watch the ox-cart rumblings when your birthplace was Sydney in the 1970s. Mine is not a life of those large wooden wheels; except that it is. And that question struck: when an ox-cart is unflinchingly ordinary where is my home? That's the big wheel.

The Pilliga Country, New South Wales

Dry creek in the Pilliga Country.

The kettle boiled, around the kitchen table we sat, in the old fibro house of my grandmother. As the tea was poured she'd sow memories into her younger generations; and captivate with the easy-loving meander of her history-telling ways. To her it was like a duty to capture the goodness of others, the ones who left before her; to keep alive their memories for when she was no more in the world to attend the task.

Her family cut their life from the pine trees in Pilliga country; in the forests where there dwelt those mythical creatures called yowies. Her father made the steam engine into a sleeper cutter for the burgeoning railway trade. They got water straight from the river with a device called a water box. These things became my grandmother's youth… joined to my young adulthood.

The kettle boiled, around the kitchen table we sat, and spoke of Hatiya. She heard the social life of the village and of Bengali culture. She used to marvel at the ways of doing things: the washing clothes by hand, the means of cooking; things she remembered helping her mother do. She used to look over the photos and ask the names: Selim, Bhabi, Emran, Khader, Komol… She had the patience of the years and she'd take time going through each photograph. I told funny village stories to match the pictures and she liked that.

She really saw those photos. She really looked, even when she was almost entirely blind.

I guess her approach, the love for her family and her humility made it easier to know Hatiya; and in these things she was not absolutely Australian, but had within her the temperament of Bengal. I never told her that.

It sits still now, my great grandfather's steam engine; a feature in a tiny town park far from everywhere. It's scratched and jumped upon by the foraging generations of the future as their parents prepare sandwiches on the boot of a car.

Sydney, New South Wales

They forget they do, as they run around like digital maniacs in the sound of flashing lights and gleaming glass: they forget their memories from the 1920s, the ones forged by their grand and great grandparents in times not exactly distant: the times of big iron wheels, of big wooden wheels. And from forgetting they find themselves special.

Hatiya, Noakhali

They can forget too for the wooden wheels are gone now; a generation born that has never heard them with their own eyes. It's hard to imagine, the way Hatiyans cradle their eucalypt leaf-shaped island in their arms, close to chest; but it can be and it can have been, in a turn or two of the wheel. It's better to hope for the preserving quality of tea. Perhaps.


'Forget the past and embrace the future,' comes SMS-ed across the New Year's midnight, 2011. And yet how can it be that the past is forgotten while ever it remembers us and listens to our actions?



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