It was Easter Monday 2005 and I was on my way to Melbourne, having left Queanbeyan earlier that morning. The Hume Highway was alive with traffic, most travellers destined for home after the holiday break.
‘Nine miles’ north of Gundagai I stopped at Coolac to stretch my legs with a browse around a local market. It was in full swing.
Coolac is a small rural village, its buildings randomly scattered along the highway. It services the surrounding farms and passing travellers. Low lying hills encompass the area, subtly contrasting the flatness of the enclosed farmland.
It was these hills, in early 1920, that Henry Lawson was encouraged by young Grace McManus to climb, after frequenting the local hotel. Grace’s father ran the local store. Some of Lawson’s friends in Sydney had persuaded the writer to spend time in Coolac. He stayed with the McManus family. It was hoped this time in the bush would improve his health, which had been severely ravaged by his alcoholism. Lawson stayed for two brief weeks and although promising to return, he never did. Within two years he was dead.
The markets were set up in and around the Memorial Hall. Entrance was through the memorial gates, built in memory of a pilot shot down over the English Channel in 1941. Passing the bland, red brick façade of the hall, another smaller gate opened onto the local recreation ground. It was here that I met a couple selling a variety of goods that spread over three tables.
A small collection of Gundagai souvenirs caught my attention. The famous dog on the tucker box, as well as a small, yellow spot with the price, were on each item in the collection. I bought two small mulga wood, egg cups. I guess it could be seen as somewhat ironic buying these souvenirs at Coolac. Like Gundagai, this little township has also had some legitimate claims in the folklore stakes to the defecating dog.
I asked the gentleman behind the table whether he was a local. He told me that he and his wife were from Tumut. They had come to Tumut some fourteen years previously to take up the lease on a business. After ten years of successfully building up the business, the lease was unexpectedly not renewed. They were left with a good percentage of the surplus stock and an ice making plant. “I was not nice to know for some months after this,” he confided.
It had been four years since they finished with their business. They now packed their utility and travelled to these markets to recoup some of their losses. Much of what they sold included the leftover goods – fishing tackle, videos and paperbacks. They were not young and their future security had been wrenched from them. But they were genuinely thankful for what they still had – their health and the fact that they had each other. “And we enjoy meeting and talking to people like you.”
To every story there can be two sides. And the risks inherent in any business lease are by no means insignificant. However, the credibility and humility demonstrated by this couple in the short time I was with them were clearly evident. The resilience that allowed them to overcome the vicissitude that life threw their way and their positive outlook in getting on with their life, despite the undeniable difficulties and bitterness occasioned, were inspiring. With the callous drought continuing to threaten the future lives of so many on the land, the spirit exemplified by this couple from Tumut was heartening. The belief that they were representative of the extraordinariness that characterises many when faced with hardship and trauma was difficult to doubt. With their spirit, they would surely have fitted comfortably into a Henry Lawson story.
Not far out of Coolac I stopped the car. I made some notes about my meeting with this couple. On reaching Melbourne they were still in my thoughts. And a few days later I wrote a song about them.
The song’s verses could be likened to a series of musical snapshots. Much of the song’s narrative develops through use of direct speech. I hope this heightens the sense of being there, as the story unfolds in song.