Remote Reader by Carrie Tiffany
I learnt to read in the desert. I was twenty years old and working as
a park ranger in central Australia. I lived in a silver caravan stumped
up with old house bricks. During the day I emptied the rubbish bins, or
went on patrol, or took tourists on guided walks, or shot feral cats. At
night I read books.
Books were scarce in the desert. The national park I worked on was serviced by a tourist resort that sold fly spray and wafer thin boomerangs made in China. It did not sell books. The nearest books were in a library 400-kilometres away. I rang the library and joined up as a remote reader. Books would be sent out to me every month on one of the tourist buses. I couldn't access the catalogue so a librarian would choose the books on my behalf. My librarian was called Merv. I wrote him a note with a summary of my tastes. But I was twenty - it was the summary of a taste for something I had never eaten.
The books arrived one afternoon on a Greyhound bus with a dozen Swedes, some Germans and Japanese. I was still in my ranger uniform and it went badly. The tourists thought I had come to meet them, not to collect a box of books, so I had to explain. They nodded and smiled. They wanted to see the books. I held each one in front of me for a few seconds while they squinted at the covers and mouthed the titles. They looked disappointed. It was the wrong detail in the holiday stories tourists tell about rangers. I should have been collecting medical supplies, or an important part to repair the two-way radio. I took the books back to my caravan and turned on the air conditioner. Turtles of the Top End, Practical First Aid, Leyland Brothers Trekabout and Thea Astley's The Well Dressed Explorer.
I read so as not to feel alone, and to escape the heat. There were months of 40 degree days. The air felt too hot to ingest - like it was pulsing off metal. I sniffed and panted. The blood vessels in my nostrils hardened and sprung leaks. My pockets were full of rusty tissues. When I washed the blood stains from my shirts and hung them on the line they snap dried in seconds.
I rationed The Well Dressed Explorer. Fifteen pages in bed at night, three with breakfast. When I came back to my caravan after a day's work I felt a surge of relief that The Explorer was still there, high and dry on its scatter of toast crumbs. I sent Merv a note asking for more stories like Astley's. The next greyhound bus brought Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead and Patrick White.
I didn't read in front of the other rangers, and I certainly didn't talk about reading. We talked about the day we were in, and the days immediately before and after. The roster was ten days on, four days off, so we talked about where we were in the roster and if we would go to town on our days off. As I came to the end of a ten day roster I would use a pocket calculator to see if I had enough pages to cover my days off. I could not imagine a day when I did not read.
There were real stories in the desert. Stories as engaging as anything I was reading, but somehow their very realness prevented me from entering them. An Anangu woman I worked with told me the story of her life in a liquid mixture of English and Pitjatjantjara. The woman wasn't exactly from the country of this national park, but some other country a few hours drive away. She had come here as a teenager and was taken in by a white man working as a mechanic at one of the roadhouses. She kept the man's house and had two children. The mechanic was a short termer - a man from down south who'd come to the territory to make money and escape for a while. When he left he took the children but not their mother. The Anangu woman didn't know where they had gone, or how to she might follow them. She had never been more than a few hours from the mission she was born on. She couldn't read, or dial the numbers on a telephone. She went to the courthouse (next to the library) in the town 400-kilometres away to ask the judge to return her children, but crippled with fear and shyness she was unable to say their names. She moved back into the aboriginal community and eventually married again. She lived on the fringe of the two worlds - working with the whites as a ranger during the day - living in the community at night. Once we went on patrol together and she showed me some of her country. I felt intensely uncomfortable. I was being shown only by default. I was being shown the country that was meant for her children. Sometimes when I went to meet the Greyhound bus she came with me. I collected my books and she searched the faces of the tourists - hoping to collect her children.
I read so I didn't have to see what was in front of me. This was nothing new. As a teenager I used reading as a weapon against my mother. I choose books on the basis that she couldn't pronounce the name of the author. The Russians got a good go - Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Solzhenitsyn. And I liked thickness. Great dense loaves of books that made my mother's Georgette Heyers and Mills and Boons look like white bread slices. We were a television house, not a book house. The great writers of my family's heyday were TV comics like Dave Allen and the Two Ronnies. My father's only books were car servicing manuals and couple of leather bound Dickens he had bought in a junk shop just before we left England. My father figured he'd make a serious profit by selling the second-hand Dickens in Australia. Three months later, when our shipping container arrived, my father was already an Australian. I unwrapped the books from our winter sheets and placed them on a shelf in my bedroom where they gave off an unmistakable smell of England - of gravy.
I read to protect myself against the dark. During the day I told the tourists about the rich nocturnal life of the desert. I described pythons chaining across the cooling sands, bilbies emerging from their burrows to feed in the starlight, owls coasting on thermals between the dunes. But the nights inside my caravan were tame. The stale air rotated backwards and forwards through the air conditioner. The only sound was the turning of pages, the rearranging of limbs and pillows, and an occasional break for tea. I did not like the gap of time between reading and sleep. The re-embodying act of closing the book and turning off the light was jarring and left me feeling suspended and uncomfortable.
I read of one landscape and lived in another.
On my 21st birthday Merv sent me a card saying he was taking me to England. George Eliot, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, the Brontes. My country. I read of moors, fens, dells and heaths. Sometimes there were strange echoes between what I read and what I was doing. I read Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native in a bird hide with blood on my hands. We were researching the Wedge-Tail Eagles that flew up and down the highways feeding on road kill, and in the process often becoming road kill themselves. A lump of horsemeat was staked out near a road and the rangers took turns recording observations in a tiny hide dug into the ground and covered with sticks and spinifex. Each ranger took a four hour shift writing down how many eagles arrived and how long they fed for. When the horse meat ran out a new fetid and maggoty lump had to be dragged out from under a tarpaulin some distance away. The eagles were fast and vicious. Their feathers stuck together in greasy clumps. They had sharp beaks and huge drumstick legs. Once a group had gathered they fed and fought each other. I wrote my observations every twenty minutes or so, but the rest of the time I made a pillow from the red sand and rolled onto my back to read. I read about Diggory Venn, Thomas Hardy's reddleman in The Return of the Native who digs up red clay to make dye for sheep's wool. The clay seeps into his skin leaving a permanent red stain. Venn is a native of Edgon Heath - a desolate flatland in Hardy's Wessex. When I rolled over to check the eagles through the viewing slit in the bird hide my eyes took a few seconds to re-adjust, to push back the image of Diggory Venn the reddleman. I returned The Return of the Native to Merv at the library with blood smears on many of the pages from where I had touched the horsemeat. I didn't feel especially guilty and it was beyond me to explain.
I read so I didn't have to think about where I was, or why I was there, or what I would do next.
I read to meet people, and to avoid meeting people. When I stood in front of a group of tourists to talk to them about the desert I imagined them as characters in books that I had read. I saw them on the page with their back-stories, the plot points that had led them to be standing at that place on that day. I wondered how people could be written.
I read to be seduced. Merv went on a librarians study tour of Paris. He sent me Hugo, Dumas, and Flaubert's Madame Bovary. I fell badly for Flaubert. I read Madame Bovary three times. It was hard to put back on the bus. I noticed the name tag of the girl serving behind the counter at the roadhouse; Emma. She wore blue eye shadow and Australian flag earrings, but I still looked at her anew. In the nineteenth century Flaubert's book about Emma Bovary coined a medical condition; an excessive dreaminess in women was termed Bovaryisme. I suspected I was the only ranger in the Australian desert suffering from Bovaryisme.
The French books had advertisements in the back for other titles. I liked the sound of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. I wrote a request to Merv and he obliged. I was late for the bus and my books had been left on the side of the road. Not the one book by the writer Proust that I had expected, but seven - a great bale of books tilting in the afternoon sun.
Sometimes a story from the day attached itself to the book I was reading at night, and I felt the book and the story were in conversation through me - that I spent the day switching eerily between the two. I was reading Capricornia by Xavier Herbert and working to build a walking track with my friend, the Anangu woman. My friend talked about her daughter. Her daughter was grown up now, somewhere down south, and my friend wondered if she had her own children and what they would be like. Carpricornia ends when the body of a pregnant Aboriginal girl is discovered in an empty water tank. The girl had hidden in the tank out of fear her child would be taken away. As my friend talked of her daughter I could see the desiccated body of the girl in the tank - the desperate marks her fingernails had made as she scratched at the rusty corrugated iron. It was too hot to be building a walking track. My friend's story, with the images from the book attached, was too much for me. I said I wasn't feeling well. I said we should knock off early.
Reading in the desert is not the same as reading in the classroom or at a university. My knowledge of the world, of history and politics and geography, was poor. Everything to me was at the same time both fictional and real.
After a few years I left my job as a park ranger in the desert and went back to England to visit my relatives. I was in London during December and had a few days to kill before Christmas. I was reading the Latins then - humid books by Garcia Marquez and Allende and Paz, but I was thinking about Thomas Hardy. I went to the ticket office at the tube station and asked how I would get to Wessex. One British Rail employee consulted another and then another. A young Indian woman finally broke it to me gently. The Wessex made famous by the English writer Thomas Hardy was not a real place. It was a place only in books. It was not possible to go there.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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