The Solitarians of Uglamatta

Robert Dalvean

5000 words

Part 1

Some decades ago, Marcus Baye, formerly an editor of instruction manuals, took a job at a rural newspaper circulating in a flat, hot and dusty region far from any city. He was to be the head (and only) proof reader on a twice-weekly newspaper. The paper served the town of Uglamatta. Until he got the job, he had never heard of the place. By the time of his leaving all employment behind him the town certainly had heard of him.

Marcus Baye came from Melbourne, where he had lived in a small but very neat one-bedroom flat just two floors up – too high for anyone to see him.

For reasons even he had forgotten, he had repudiated the name Marcus and would have liked to answer only to Mr Baye, a desire he did not bother to communicate to others.

He loathed disorder and uncleanliness. To watch him pluck a grape from a bunch and wipe it carefully with a tissue before consigning it to his digestive system was to test one’s patience. To wait with him for a bus was even worse. Rather than tolerate an unplanned crease in his clothes he would let many vehicles go by until he could be sure of getting a seat. To stand and be buffeted by his fellow passengers was to invite both rumpling and fellowship – two comparable insults to his being.

He was forty-eight, and felt, so he often said, older.

Mr Baye thought deeply on many topics, and when he did he squeezed his eyes shut, clenched his teeth, pressed his lips together to form a long thin line and puffed out his cheeks. At such times he looked like a dried apple in pain

Two things happened to propel him to Uglamatta: the technical publishing house that had employed him as an editor for twenty years dissolved itself in a multi-national conglomerate that could not accommodate him; and then he placed his severance money in a fund that looked secure but wasn’t. He lost it all. He had to sell his comfortable flat and live in rented rooms.

He looked for jobs and found none. He was too stiff, too old, too set in his ways. And when he encountered people who might have helped him he spoke as if he were a duke and they his under-gardeners.

But he had a few friends, people like himself, and one of them had a brother-in-law who ran a newspaper that needed a proofreader.

The Uglamatta Gazetteer occupied an old building, which had once been a wool store. When Mr Baye reported for duty, the staff gawked at his tall, gaunt, darkly attired frame. The manager, also gawking, drew him into his office. Only then did Marcus Baye discover that he had not only to read the news, but also to gather some of it.

He was, with other reporters, the rest of them casually employed, to report on common life: nothing odd, just the daily rural round: police, ambulance, schools, churches, the local council offices. He would not actually interview anyone. He would merely accept brief scribbles that awaited him at each news spot. (In a larger town they might have been called press releases.)

But when he opened his eyes and looked about him, what he discovered was not news, but death.

Death everywhere, death in the streets, in the houses, out on the sheep properties. Each day the sun would shoot up into a clear sky and burn down into the human brains below – and some of those brains could not take it.

His first death was in Uglamatta’s main street (which, of course, was called Main Street). On that day he had visited the police station and been told by the contact he knew as Sergeant Barber what matters of law and its enforcement he could use in his daily bulletin. Then he visited the ambulance station, and gained nothing newsworthy. Later, there’d be schools and flower shows to cover.

He was walking along Main Street when he saw a crowd that had spilled from the footpath on to the road. People milled about a 1950-model Holden sedan. As he got closer, he saw that the car was locked, the windows were all up and there was a man inside with what looked like a water pipe in his mouth. When the shotgun at last went off, the car rocked and the windows turned red. He looked away, but standing next to him was a man who was eating a tomato sauce-laden meat pie. He forced himself to look from the pie to the windows of the car. He noted similarities.

He returned to the office and told the manager what he had seen, and the manager assured him he had not seen it: that kind of thing didn’t happen in Uglamatta. Later, at the police station, Sergeant Barber turned to two of his colleagues and said, “Suicide? What suicide? Do we know anything about a suicide? We do have an accidental death by gunshot in Main Street, but no suicide.”

With some mental effort, Marcus came to understand that there were never any suicides in Uglamatta. As the heatwave roared on, each day hotter than the last, people whose ancestors had come from temperate regions slowly went mad. Their problems and stresses, manageable in mild weather, got the better of them. Perhaps they also got the better of Marcus Baye, who began to see the people of Uglamatta as walking skeletons.

A man was found with his head inside a bucket of cyanide-based rabbit poison: accidental death.

A man lay dead with his throat cut and a straight razor in his hand: shaving accident.

A man placed his head on the local railway line and waited for a train: traffic accident.

By the time the summer was over, many deaths like these had occurred, and of course there were no suicides.

Nobody could explain the situation to him. He thought that perhaps suicide was bad for tourism, but there wasn’t any. No one who could think of anywhere else to go would stay in Uglamatta.

The dead at last drove him from that job. While he was dealing with the only elements of country life he was permitted to write about, he saw corpses – the poisoned, the gashed, the blasted, the burned, the mangled – all of them denied significance, their last, world-leaving acts converted from major drama to misadventure, as if they had blundered out of life instead of freely choosing not to have it. It was existential vandalism.

So, having failed at that occupation, he was permitted to concentrate on his proof-reading, which he did with a dedication that had been missing from his reporting.

Mr Baye was secretive, self-absorbed, a loner, a social nobody. Yet something deep within him longed for a confidant, a kindred spirit. Unable to find one, he took to whispering his thoughts to the walls of his room. He told them everything about himself and they responded by invading his dreams with evil parodies of his thoughts.

He had been mistaken in fleeing to that particular town. Uglamatta had suddenly sprung into being in the 1850s and had thereafter resisted change with a thoroughness that Mr Baye should have admired. But he saw the town, not as conservative, but retarded.He saw himself as the silent, immovable centre of the universe.

That first ferocious summer turned at last into a cool autumn, and then came the delectable winter. This did not displease him at all, for he was a lover of all things cold.

Yet in spite of the agreeable climate, he soon became unhappy. He could sense his separateness from the rest of the inhabitants. At home – he still thought of his former residence in Melbourne as home – he had had little to do with his neighbours. Yet the city’s populace had acted as a shield against themselves. And the sheer mass of theMelbourne protected him as a monastery wall protects a monk. But now he felt naked at the thought of running into wilderness after a twenty-minute walk. In cities one never needed to think of such things;  in a small town everybody knew what lurked out there – the void from which all things were derived: life, death and fictions. To keep from thinking about that profound nothingness he needed to be busy. So, he read. He read for profit by day; and by night he read for other reasons. For pleasure? No, he got no more joy from his reading than a chain smoker does from one more cigarette. He only knew that it was necessary to consume print – fictions; and for him all writings were fictional, even if labelled as fact or theory. To stop reading was to invite into his life real fictions.

His work was undemanding. The town had been running down for years. Every day it lost pieces of itself. The young emerging from education could find nothing to work at and so drifted away. The roads, the services, the range of goods for sale – all seemed to be decaying or lessening. The newspaper he worked for was a farcical entity. Somehow, using old-fashioned machinery and obsolete techniques, it barely managed to come out twice a week. In it could be found reports on everything from council dealings to cake recipes, but there was very little news.

He was paid to sit all day in a large plywood box with two windows and a door. At one window proofs arrived from the antique galley presses. At the other sat a wire basket which he gradually filled with corrected proofs. The basket was emptied by hands that might have belonged to a gorilla for all the notice he took of them.

Through the plywood walls of his cell he could hear all day the rattle, clatter and crash of Linotypes and the din made by compositors handling type metal. The sounds had no meaning. They were white noise that he found soothing. His mind was left free to absorb print.

But how to fit into country life: that was a problem. He couldn’t bring himself to care about sheep, cattle, crops, markets or local politics. They meant no more to him than the sounds he heard coming through the walls.

As a single man, just able to afford a tiny room in a bungalow at the rear of The Regent, one of the town’s ten pubs, he could live without too much pain. Print was his opiate. He would read before breakfast, or after work, or any time. Reading kept the world out of his head. But the entire population of the town seemed to be involved in a conspiracy to force it back in. He was invited to join clubs, to be present at public events, to become involved, to participate. Always polite, he would decline, pleading odd hours, ill health, other commitments.

For a time, the town accepted his excuses. After all, he was an outsider, and therefore not fully human. He could be understood and forgiven if he wished to be. He did not so wish. The town hardened.

Curiosity about the town’s odd people raged in him like a thirst. (He had little time for the ordinary folk.) But he imagined his interest would remain secret. Certainly, there was no chance of his forgetting himself so completely as to reach out to those people, and they were too securely locked into their obscure functions to reach out to him. He was like a man visiting a zoo. Bars, meshes, ditches, walls and moats protected him from the inhabitants and them from him.

He might have continued in his ways – solitary, ruminative, self-absorbed – if winter had only lasted forever. But October came with its soft airs and mellow sunshine, and then November, which in those latitudes is virtual summer. He hated to see everywhere the shedding of bulky garments, the emergence of white flesh soon to be browned like toast. The calm, closed world of winter within which his troubled spirit had found some repose was now to be made turbulent by summer’s uproar.

His fellow workers began to notice him. Until the season’s turning he had successfully imitated the old composing room machinery. He was just another mechanism, mobile and self-programming, but a machine for all that. No doubt he was talked about. Everyone knew about him and he in turn “knew” them, by which he meant that to each name he could put a face and a description. Some of them were “characters”, actors performing badly in roles that to him had no meaning, amateurish performances: The Lecher, The Sportsman, The Larrikin, The Fool. Perhaps they in turn had cast him, perhaps as The Thinker. Perhaps as The Ghost.

What brought him suddenly to their attention was his refusal to negotiate with the henchmen of summer: heat, dust, birds, foliage, gaiety. He dressed as in winter and refused to discuss the climate with anyone. When someone mentioned the “beautiful” weather he gave himself points for not responding, and more points for not losing his calmness.

But although he would not compromise, he could not prevent people from observing that a struggle was in progress behind his eyes. He fought with himself to resist the assaults of an enemy that was not even aware that he and it were in contention. He wanted to go on living yet be invisible. He wanted to sever his connection with society and yet belong to it. And he saw that his refusal to discuss his conduct ensured that it would be discussed by others, which he resented.

Conversations broke off when he appeared. Groups of fellow workers, of loungers, of pedestrians, of children – groups of all kinds observed him and seemed unable to fathom him. When he walked by there would be nudges and sniggers. He tried not to perceive, to become islanded. But summer made this art difficult to practice

And then came … The Neighbour.

Mr Baye seldom entered the main building of the Regent, a hotel that just managed to meet the state’s requirements for safety and cleanliness. He took breakfast at a table in a corner of the kitchen and dinner in the dining room, where he ate quickly, keeping his head down. He lived in the back yard, in a structure of some antiquity. It had been used as a tool shed and workmen’s retreat by the builders of the pub many decades earlier. It was timber framed, with a gable roof of red-painted iron. There were two rooms, one of which Mr Baye occupied. It had never occurred to him that the other room would be let. He lived where and as he did because of his poverty. He could not afford a room in the main body of the hotel. Surely nobody else could be so badly off as to need to live as he lived.

But in the middle of summer, someone moved in.

Part 2

He first became aware of his neighbour one hot January night. For ten days running the sun had burned down out of a cloudless sky, and a wind from the heart of the continent, superheated by that same sun, had roared day and night, drying out land and vegetation, chasing fires about the countryside and making life difficult for Marcus Baye.

He was sitting in his only chair, a wicker monstrosity from which sprouted many dangerous fingers of split cane, reading one of the less lively chapters of The Anatomy of Melancholy, when with many a thump and crash and scuffle the neighbour moved in. Mr Baye spent a tense hour wondering if the new arrival would be noisy, but, after his initial racket, the neighbour grew silent.

A more gregarious man than Mr Baye might have asked the pub’s owners about the new tenant, but he shrank from that.

Nothing more was heard of the neighbour for several days. Then, one night, as he was sitting in his chair by the bed, Marcus Baye read with some regret the closing passages of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. He read the same few pages over and over again, turning his eyes from time to time towards the original German text, which faced the English version. He began to hear clearly certain German phrases which were not in the book, and, since he knew no German, this excited him.

He was in his best mood, outwardly calm but seething with a pleasurable expectation producible in him only by inward gestures, never by the action of the world, when he felt, actually felt a noise. A soft hissing sound. He thought of snakes and escaping gas and leaking taps. Slowly but certainly the sound worked on his mind and murdered his mood. He listened. There was a harshness in the hiss that in time became dominant and turned it into a scratch. The scratch became a clawing and the clawing a knock. Someone was at his door. Such tentativeness! He knew it was his neighbour and that the man had rubbed the door with the palm of his hand, then scratched with his nails. Only as a last resort had he knocked.

Trembling, and sweating in his weather-defying suit, his feet swelling in stout shoes, Mr Baye rose to let the stranger in. He had expected the neighbour to be, in the fashion of the time and place, half naked, with masses of hirsute flesh interrupted by swatches of light summer fabrics.

But no! To his relief, on opening the door he found the neighbour to be fully dressed, and dressed in a fashion so like Marcus Baye’s that the man could have stolen clothing from him. For a terrible moment he wondered if at last he had realised a nightmare of his youth and met his double. But unfamiliar as he might have been with his own face, he was tolerably sure that it was not quite so lost as the one that confronted him now. A face in its mid-forties, stiff with suffering. The eyes were dead souls burning in a fleshly tomb. The grey hair, lifeless as straw, looked as if it had been rudely hacked rather than cut.

“What can I do for you?” Mr Baye said.

“You can’t sell me string,” the man said. His voice was surprisingly mellow.

“Then why are we meeting?”

“Because your name is Marcus Baye. It sounds like a holiday resort, a nice place to be.”

“I see,” said Mr Baye, who did not.

“I must have an usher. You are the one,” his neighbour said.

Mr Baye, who had by now begun to deploy his social self, a sheath of calculated manners, strove for urbanity of tone as he said, “Have you been here long, in Uglamatta?”

“As long as you. I came looking for an usher, someone who’d stand by the exit as I passed through. I saw you … where or what is this Uglamatta?”

“It is a mispronunciation of an Aboriginal name,” said Mr Baye, who had studied the matter. “Because of its mangling, it is now meaningless.”

“I like it,” said the man

“I find it absurd,” said Mr Baye.

“Ah, but you’re content to go on living, aren’t you?”

“Perfectly content,” said Mr Baye, who, having at last met a person he considered odder than himself, now discovered in himself a craving for sweet normality.

“Well, it’s different for me,” the neighbour said. “I get up in the morning. I see the glory of the day, the sun, the flowers, the floating hair of the schoolgirls as they run past. I breathe deeply, feeling my soul enhance itself. And I ask: ‘Today, why shouldn’t I kill myself?’ Don’t you feel that way?”

Mr Baye assured the man that he did not.

“And then it’s lunch time, and I might say to myself, ‘All right, you may live until sundown. Then, you die.’ And if I survive that – and obviously I do – then I say, like making a bet with myself, ‘I’ll give you until you fall asleep. If you fall asleep, you live, if you don’t, you die’.”

He shook his head sadly.

“I am a very sound sleeper,” he said.

He was odd but seemed harmless, so Mr Baye invited him in and closed the door. The neighbour held a bottle of wine with a typewritten label saying Fine Old Port. It was not a port that Mr Baye would have chosen. He sat on the bed and invited the stranger to sit in the wicker chair. The man sat down heavily, uncorked the bottle, drank deeply with much gurgling, set the bottle between his feet and began to talk.

“I am half way,” he said. “I’d like to be further along, but there are difficulties. Method is the main one. You see, I was endowed even before birth with a distaste for straightforwardness. I crave complexity. The sundial isn’t enough for me. Neither is the hour glass. I must have the two of them welded together and worked by water. Do you follow me?”

Mr Baye did not, but he smiled. There was tension in his face.

“Are you thinking?” asked his neighbour.

Mr Baye said he was.

“Thought so,” said the neighbour. “Your face was wrinkled. Please think of this: you and I are secular saints. If we were religious, we’d be anchorites. But we are not, and therefore we are . . .”

“Yes?” Mr Baye said. “We are?”

“We are . . . solitarians.”

Over the usual Saturday night summer tumult came a sound of bellowing.

“Come!” said the neighbour, rising.

Mr Baye followed him without question. They walked through the pub’s back yard and into a lane that led to the town’s Main Street. Something was obviously afoot that oughtn’t to have been.

When they emerged from the lane Mr Baye could see what it was. The street was infested with cattle. Cars, trucks, pedestrians, cows, steers and an occasional bull contended for street space. Over the noise the neighbour shouted.

“All my work! I did it. When they cancelled next week’s cattle sale because of the fire I set, they left the cattle penned, so I sprang.”

The neighbour was shouting but most of his words were lost in the din. Mr Baye thought he heard him say, “Lost again.” But his attention was diverted by the sight of a frantic steer that had been struck a glancing blow on the head by a passing truck. The furious animal charged out of the road. Its target was the brightly lit window of a jeweller’s shop

“Now!” shouted the neighbour and bounded into the path of the deranged beast. But the steer shied for some reason and then, continuing on its way, reached the window and shattered it, dying soon after from rapid blood loss.

“You see!” roared the neighbour. “Destiny! Now let’s go back to your room.”

Marcus Baye wanted to lie on the floor and tear out his hair. Now that he had allowed this madman into his life he was filled with dread. At length, again sitting on his bed while the stranger occupied his chair, he said, “Why have you chosen me as your confessor?”

“Chosen? I haven’t chosen. Nobody chooses. One is chosen. Human agency is an illusion. Listen. Today I started a grass fire a little north of the saleyards. When it was put out by the brigade, I waited till dark and then threw fireworks in among the cattle. Then I unbarred the gates and let them out. I wanted to be run down. I offered myself. I lay down in their path and they hurdled me. I stood up and the stream parted and flowed round me. I need an usher.”

“Please go away,” Mr Baye said.

“Oh no, no. You wanted to be – what’s the word? Singular? Exceptional? Now I’m here to show you what true singularity means. You’re a mobster, Mr Baye. You aren’t built for standing alone. You’re a man who needs and is needed. I need you. Come. We’re hungry.”

Marcus Baye later wrote out in his neat copperplate script an account of the evening he spent with his neighbour. So clear in his mind were the events of the night, and even the stranger’s words, that he swore to the exact truth of his account, which he submitted to the police. This, in part, is what he wrote:

When the stranger said that he wanted to eat I asked him to be my guest. “I sometimes go to a Greek place in Main Street,” I told him.

“I know,” he replied. Then he took a swig from his bottle and said, “So much for supper. I’d like to come and watch you eat.”

This prospect alarmed me for a moment, since normally I ate alone, but I could think of no way of dissuading him and, since I had missed the dinner hour, I was hungry.

Main Street was still in turmoil. Traffic had been cleared by police, but cattle still roamed and sightseers were abundant. We reached The Marathon restaurant, where I was known. They brought me my usual meal. My companion asked for a cup of coffee.

“You haven’t asked my name,” he said.

“I could find out at the hotel, but surely it would be false.”

“Very perceptive,” he said. You may call me Henry Lord – Henry after the kings and Lord for master.”

I could think of no response to this so I asked what he wanted of me.

“Merely your co-operation,” he said. “Your bare existence will do.”

My food lay before me, hardly touched. I found it difficult to eat in the presence of a stranger. We sat on the tubular steel chairs facing each other across a tabletop of laminated plastic. The cafe was full of people talking about nothing except escaped cattle. I could ignore them. I could not ignore the man who called himself Henry Lord, whose face, now sweaty, seemed to be enlivening itself, as if lights within his skull were being progressively brightened.

“Do you take sugar?” he said.

The abruptness of the question unsettled me. Some seconds passed before I could answer that I did.

“Then would you be so kind as to sweeten my coffee?” he said, handing me a bottle of what I took to be saccharin tablets. I unscrewed the cap and shook out a tablet. He held up two fingers and I shook out another. Then he pointed to his cup. I dropped the tablets into his coffee and watched them fizz.

“This will be interesting,” he said. “My form of Russian Roulette. I was once trained as a chemist. I can make pills as well as buy them. I made some of the pills in that bottle. Now the power that drives us will decide whether or not you are a murderer.”

With that he picked up the cup and drank from it. Within seconds, he was choking and convulsing. As he fell from his chair he kicked over the table, leaving me sitting on my chair, feeling exposed and foolish. Before speech failed him, he managed to say, “Now the power cycle is complete.”

Mr Baye could not think of anything to add. A bald, muscular man who had introduced himself as Sergeant Miller took the paper from him, read through it and then carefully tore it to pieces.

“Look, Mr Baye,” he said. “This is crap. It’s going to be an accident. He did it all. He was a nut. It’s always the blow-ins who cause trouble in this town. He was a blow-in.”

He did not say that Mr Baye was a blow-in too.

“We want you to make a statement. It will show that you were a witness, nothing more.”

A statement was read to him. He signed it. But he insisted that the facts were otherwise.”

“Mr Baye, said the sergeant, “We can make life hard for you.”

“Oh yes, yes,” Mr Baye said. “Do it.”

“Get him out of here,” the sergeant said.

And get him out they did, not only out of the police station but out of the town. His job disappeared. His room at the pub was demolished. He took what little money he had and went muttering into a great darkness.

People saw him from time to time, but nobody was sure who it was that they were seeing. He lived somewhere near the river where the trees and their undergrowth concealed him. A duck shooter might surprise him (and be surprised in turn) in the early gloom, or a group of walkers might be startled by the sudden, and brief, appearance of a gaunt ragged man whose wild stare would take the pleasure out of their day. Someone lived deep in the narrow river forest, it was said, but nobody knew his name. Some said that several wild, ragged men lived “down there”. The local poet, Fred P. Merrigold, whose work (perhaps once proof-read by Marcus Baye) had often appeared in the local paper, wrote a verse about them. He called it Tree Men.

Time passed and in a very dry season the river shrank and the bush dried out. A fire started by lightning burned savagely along the river banks. After the fire four charred bodies were found. These, insisted the locals, had been the tree men, and now there were none. Also found was a clay tablet baked rock-hard by the fire. On it was a list of six names that had been deeply incised, perhaps with a sharp twig. The list was headed simply “The Morbayes”. Four of the names were not known to the police. One, Henry Lord, might have belonged to the mystery man who had set a fire and sent cattle stampeding through the streets. The fifth was familiar to them: Marcus Baye. Dental records showed that none of the dead men was Mr Baye. So what had become of him? Some of the locals believed he had escaped from the fire and now wandered at night, a menace to cattle and crops.

Merrigold the poet, having written once about the so-called “tree men”, wrote a longer poem, in neat, rhyming eight-line stanzas, Morbayes at large. It won a national poetry prize.

One stanza, although often quoted, was omitted from later printings because Merrigold denied writing it. Here it is:

Aped by children, barked at by dogs, I lope
Through the long grass, drooling and yodelling,
My long coat snagged by twigs, the cantaloupe
Which is my head a-wobble. I’m modelling
For the maniac’s gazette, and truly hope
To grow rich and enjoy some coddling,
I haven’t had such fun since grandma’s head
Was found inside a loaf of home-baked bread.

It is thought that Mr Baye would not have liked the poem: its rhymes were inexact.