Often, a play is years in the making. Sometimes it can be decades. Even a lifetime. Perhaps more than one lifetime. …
Here, writing for Audrey, playwright Caleb Lewis unearths the deep roots of his new play The River at the End of the Road.
My Poppa Bill isn’t even a dad yet. One day he’ll be a tough old bastard, but right now he’s just a kid, not yet 21, knuckles white, eyes squinted tight, as the plane drops out of the sky.
The pilot is fighting the wheel, but he might as well fight gravity. From the steel and glass bubble underneath the fuselage, Bill would have had a front-row seat as the earth rushed up to greet him.
I imagine his legs braced against the inside of his shell, head resting between his knees, as though that might somehow save him, and then the shock when the plane hits the water.
They are in the Danube, which is not bloody blue, and freezing cold, and getting darker as the propeller pulls them down.
Bill gets his seatbelt undone as the plane floods, pulls himself up out of the bubble and then he’s floating in a well inside the now-vertical plane.
The bomb bay doors are open and he catches a glimpse of starlight and kicks towards it, past floating cargo, and bodies, and unexploded bombs, up, up, towards the memory of light.
In late 1994, I went on a road trip with Mum from Melbourne to Adelaide. It wasn’t really a road-trip, but we called it that.
We left early, to beat the traffic, and I remember it still being dark outside. We stopped in Ballarat for petrol, crossed the border at around noon and stopped again in Keith.
There was this truck stop on the side of the road: maybe half a dozen fuel pumps, and inside, a rack for sunglasses, a shelf of videos for rent, six or seven laminate tables and a menu on the wall.
There was a girl on the till. She would have been about 15. My age. And I watched the way she dealt with truckies, and bus drivers, and passengers, just like a grownup.
But between buses, when the shop quieted down, she’d sit at one of the tables, hunched over her homework, chewing on a pencil like a kid. Then the bell above the door would ring and she’d be back at the till until the next wave passed through, on their way someplace else. And I wondered what kind of life she had and what my own would be like in a new city without Dad.
The song, Zombie, by the Cranberries, was playing on the radio. I don’t know if she heard it. I can’t remember if she hummed along or anything like that, but every time I hear it, I’m back there with her in Keith, at the end of one life, before the start of another.
We sit in the living room, nursing cold cups of tea. The television is on, but no one’s watching.
Small talk is attempted, briefly taken up, and abandoned at the slightest noise from Robert’s room. It’s not his room anymore – hasn’t been for years, but we still call it Robert’s room. Poppa’s in there now.
My aunty goes in to check on him. Through the door we can hear him gasping. He hasn’t eaten more than a spoonful in weeks. She gives him water to wet the back of his throat but it hurts too much to swallow.
She turns his pillow, lays a cold flannel on his forehead and smooths Vaseline over the cracks in his lips. Does he want anything? No dear (just to die). He lost his wife 20 years ago, and his second love a decade back, and then his hip, and his eyesight, and his hearing. Who can blame him?
And yet his body refuses to die.
World War II couldn’t kill him. Nothing can. Even when his mind’s made up, his wretched body clings to life. Mum holds his hand and talks about Heaven, where he’ll see Joan again and Ursula too, and he tells her he doesn’t believe in that stuff, and she pretends not to hear him.
Later, he’ll seize her hand and beg her to get the kids to shelter, before the bombing starts, and she’ll tell him that the kids are safe and that there are no bombs, and finally, relenting, yes they are all in the shelter now.
Mum and my aunty stay with him until he passes into another fitful sleep, and then return to the living room. We stay another hour and then it’s time to go and I step inside Robert’s room to kiss my poppa goodbye.
He sleeps with his eyes open, but his chest still rises and falls. I kneel beside the bed and kiss his forehead. The skin is papery and dry. I wait a moment for something to happen. I don’t know what. Something. But it doesn’t. A week later he dies.
Last week Mum retired. She’s worked as a carer for the past dozen years at a nursing home one suburb over.
She’d wake at 5am and start at 6am, one by one, rousing each of the men and women in her care, assisting them into the shower, and out again, helping them to dress and comb their hair before sitting down for breakfast.
Occasionally, someone might forget where they were and start to panic, and then Mum would sit with them and talk or listen or sometimes sing until they calmed. And some mornings she’d turn back the sheets, and see right away that they were gone. Then she’d notify the nurses, bathe the body and choose a dress or a suit so they’d look their best when the family arrived.
She loved her job but caring is hard work, as hard on the body as it is on the heart. She’d come home some nights, back stooped, neck stiff, and hands curled up in claws.
But it was the days she lost someone that were always the hardest. She’d make a fuss of the dogs, then sit in the lounge room in silence, over another cup of tepid tea. She should have quit years ago, but I know why she didn’t. And now she’s worried, who’ll take care of them now?
I’m glad she’s retired and hope she gets a few decades at least to garden and sculpt and play with the grandkids. The older she gets, the more she looks like my nanna and the thought of one day losing her paralyses me.
Perhaps worse is the thought that after all those years she might end up back there, where she worked, as a resident. I like to think I’ll be there to care for her, no matter what, but if I’m not, I hope she has someone as caring as she was: one last friendly face before the end.
I’m in rehearsals with Sport for Jove and Hothouse for The River at the End of the Road. It’s a play about a girl who grows up in the middle of nowhere and her dad who works the ferry, and her missing mum, whose absence haunts them both. And despite the otherworldly setting, and the magical realism which permeates the play, I realise that, without intending it, I’ve written something autobiographical again.
River drips with nostalgia: nostalgia for childhood and lost loved ones and summer days which stretched on forever. And really, that’s why I tell stories, I think why we all do, and why we’re all so hungry for them, because they take us back, and sometimes forwards, in truth, wherever we need to go.
I think Ursula LeGuin said it best: “Story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time.”