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
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
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.