By Lindsay Foyle


HEY had risen in the dark so they could catch an early train to Sydney. The reason was Jaz wanted to take Somers to Canberra House, in Sydney, where the socialists and Labor people had their premises: offices, meeting rooms and clubrooms. He claimed it was quite an establishment.

Their walk to the station had been taken in an almost forced silence, as if they were afraid to speak in case someone said something that would be regretted. Somers told himself the reason for the silence was the cold wind, which did not invite talk. In reality he knew it was because he was locked in thought and was comfortable to stay there.

It was a strange knowing. It was an inner knowledge that could not be shared for no-other reason than some things should just not be shared. If shared they become lost, never to be recovered. Somers had been looking forward to the visit since it was first suggested. But from the moment he woke that day he had had other things on his mind. Nothing seemed to matter. He needed some time by himself. Time to think, to just be himself for an hour or so, perhaps for the entire morning. That would be nice.

As the train pulled into Central Station he broke the silence that had engulfed them for the entire train journey. He could hear himself making what sounded like some feeble excuses about remembering he needed to go to the bank and make enquiries about some money that was being transferred. If only it was true Somers thought. Access to more money would enable him to do much more than live in a small house south of Sydney.

As he made his excuses Somers hoped his words sounded more convincing to Jaz than they did to himself. Too late now he thought, I have done it and it would be up to Jaz to make of it what he will. Somers suggested they meet up at Canberra House later in the day, perhaps for lunch. At first Jaz seemed puzzled, then he agreed. Almost rushed his words as he told Somers there were people who he needed to talk to, and yes, it might be better if he went alone. They could catch up in a few hours and there would still be time for everything. Whatever everything meant Somers did not know, but it did not matter. Jaz was gone, saying over his shoulder "See you at one" as he crossed the road in a hurry and disappeared into the crowd.

Somers was surprised at how quickly Jaz had accepted his suggestion. He was not sure if he had not detected some sort of questioning or even menace lurking in his manner. Despite all his friendliness Somers knew there was much more to Jaz than he or anyone else wanted to admit.

It did not matter. The cold wind of the dawn had gone and it was now a beautiful day with the sun warming the city streets. The sky was a clear blue that you could almost see through and there was no longer even a hint of a cold breeze that had controlled the dawn. It was another day one could expect in London during summer when everyone would be intent on enjoying it. Here it was a winter's day and nobody seemed to notice. The streets were crowded and people were intent with getting on with what ever it was they needed to get on with.

Somers strolled up Elizabeth Street, crossed Liverpool and entered Hyde Park. The deep green of the grass was a contrast to the hard lifeless grey of the city buildings. The streets were grey too and even the people walking along the footpaths looked grey. Somers craved for colour. Something to match the beauty of the day, but there was nothing, except for the grass.

For a time Somers sat on the grass contemplating the contrasts this country constantly presented him. So much was familiar and yet it was not. The more he looked the more differences he saw and yet those differences were disappearing, as everything became more of the same. The riddle perplexed him. As he thought it became obvious that no matter how much time he spent thinking about the subject nothing would change. He would remain just as confounded as he was that second as he would be if the pondered the contrasts all day. It was time to move on. Time to accept that if winter could be at the wrong time of the year and as warm as summer, then obviously he could not expect anything to be as it was on the other side of the world.

The warmth of the day - which he had welcomed just a short time ago - was now making him uncomfortably hot. He needed to get out of the sun. A quiet cup of tea was what he required. Despite the temptation he knew it was too early for something stronger. If he had still been in London he would have known where to go for a quiet hour or so, perhaps with a book so he could lose himself in some other world. Something with more to it than what existed in the School of Arts Library with its hundred or more books by Nat Gould or Zane Grey. Something familiar. He remembered there was a bookshop in George Street; perhaps he could buy something to read there. Something to restore his sense of self so he could resume his adventures in this country of contrasts with renewed inner confidence.

It took Somers five minuets to make his way to Dymocks bookshop a few blocks away in George Street. He was surprised at its size, much bigger on the inside that what it had appeared from the outside. Another conundrum to add to his day of conundrums. He looked around for something familiar and was about to take a copy of Women in Love from the shelf when he stopped. Maybe he did not need to reread something by D.H. Lawrence. Maybe what he needed was something that was familiar but different. Something that would help explain this land, this city and these people.

He slid the book back into its place amidst the other Lawrence books and went off looking for an assistant who might be able to recommend something. Almost hidden between the rows of books he found a young man who worked there. Somers asked him if he could recommend something that might help explain Australian culture. Not a textbook, but something readable, something different in style from what was published in England or America. The young man looked at Somers and asked in a slow yet sure voice, with a faint note of hesitation if he wanted something with a little spice or was he more interested in things of a more conservative nature.

Somers explained he was more interested in something he would enjoy than something an academic might claim to be a must read. He added he only wanted a book to peruse while he relaxed for an hour or so. The response was instantaneous. The assistant reached down under the counter and produced a slightly tattered copy of A Curate in Bohemia. He apologised for its appearance saying it was an old personal copy. He was almost embarrassed as he said while it was a book of fiction it

was based on fact and gave an insight into what was really going on under the cover of simple everyday life. Norman Lindsay, who was a friend, wrote it and it had created a lot of interest when first published nine years earlier. Too many people thought it could have done with more disguise and a lot less truth.There was something about the description of the book that rang a bell in the dark recesses of Somers' mind.




He could not explain why but there was an inner voice that told him here was a book that could give him a look under the camouflage he was battling with. Somers reached for his wallet while asking what the price was. The young bookseller put his hand out in a gesture for him to stop getting money out. He explained books fascinated him and he was more interested in having them read than selling them. He suggested to Somers he should just take the book and have a read. There was a coffee shop in Castlereagh Street where he could sit uninterrupted for an hour or two.

The Carlton Hotel in Castlereagh Street 1922 where Lawrence had his Nightmare

Somers agreed and said he would return the book as soon as he had finished. The ever-eager young bookseller then said his name was Frank Johnson and he would soon have some time off and could come around to Mockbell's café and reclaim the book. Somers could tell him what he thought of it or ask questions. Which bits were real and which bits were fiction. It was a friendly offer Somers was only too happy to accept.

Somers found Mockbell's, placed an order for a tin jug of coffee and settled down. Johnson had suggested he should ask for the tin jug of coffee as it only cost four pence and with luck two and a half cups of passable coffee could be squeezed out of it.

While Somers had never been inside this Mockbell's before he did know what to expect as there were a number of Mockbell's sprinkled around Sydney. They all had marble topped tables, good chairs and leather-upholstered seats with backs attached to walls. Most of them were in cellars and lit by murky electric lights and were a favoured place for planning meetings of people without an office, because as long as a jug of coffee had been ordered nobody was hurried on. Somers had been told these cafes were particularly popular with women involved in the trade union movement as they had problems meeting in bars. This one was no different and there were several groups of people huddled together in what seemed to be furtive conversation. Whispering among themselves as if worried they would be overheard and reported to a higher authority. There was one group of five conspirators who caught Somers attention. They all talked at once with an intensity that implied they wanted to take over the world. What ever it was their conversation took all of their concentration and Somers knew the last thing he wanted to do was disturb them.

He selected a quiet corner as far away from them and other occupied tables he could. He could not see who else was there, but the last thing he wanted was to be disturbed by other people's chatter. He just wanted to be left alone to read. Somers was only just aware of Frank Johnson when he appeared a couple of hours later. As he was on a restricted break he only ordered a cup of coffee. Before approaching Somers he went over to the group of five and spoke with them in the soft whisper. Whispering seemed to be contagious in this semi dark crypt. Whatever it was he said to them it got their full attention. They stopped whispering and all of them looked across the room at Somers, then as if caught doing something they should not be doing they quickly turned away and began their low whispering again.

Johnson then turned his full attention to Somers. With all the assurance of an old friend he quickly crossed the room and took a seat at Somers' table. Small talk about the book followed. Yes the book was interesting. Yes it was well written. Yes it had been just what he had been looking for. Then with all the eagerness of a boy scout helping someone across the road, Johnson said he had phoned Norman Lindsay and told him about Somers. He asked if he would like to come down to Sydney to meet him. Johnson said he had been disappointed when Norman had refused.

But Johnson said he had just developed another plan. The group at the table he had spoken with were intending to go to Springwood in the Blue Mountains to visit Norman on the weekend. They were willing to take Somers with them. Frank explained three of them Jack, Ray and Philip were sons of Norman. The older man was his brother Percy, and the fifth member of the group was a young journalist named Kenneth Slessor. He was also a poet and was making a name for himself within Sydney's literary world. He assured Somers Norman would welcome him. It would be just one more added to an invading army of drunks looking for literary talk, poetry reading followed by bed and an expense free weekend away.

Somers was considering the offer when he noticed Jaz was also in the café. He was sitting at a table in the darkest part of the room, almost hidden. Had he followed him here or was this just a coincidence? Questions that defied an answer. Not the first of the day. He was with someone who Somers had never seen before. Very dark, receding mouth, and even in the half-light of the café he could see his black burning eyes. He reminded Somers of the portraits of Abraham Lincoln, the same sunken cheeks and deep, cadaverous lines but lacked the look of humour that one can find in Lincoln's portraits. He looked suspicious and seemed as if he were brooding on an inner wrong. Suddenly Jaz rose and was moving with purpose. Not hurried but a direct stride that contained a not to be messed with message. His companion followed. The two crossed the café and headed for the stairs, Somers thought they looked as if they wanted to get out of the place before being recognised. Then they were gone. Consumed by the light coming from the street.

Somers did not know if Jaz had seen him talking in the corner or had not, but somehow knew life would be more comfortable if he had not. Not that he had been doing anything he should not, or talking with anyone he should not. Somers decided it was time he too left the dimly lit coffee shop. It was becoming claustrophobic. Too many people whispering and too many people looking at him. He returned the book to Johnson, said the trip to the mountains would be good, but he could not commit to anything just then.

He was intent on getting out of the place as soon as he could too. He got up abruptly leaving Johnson sitting at the table with his coffee half drunk. No more time for small talk. He nodded to the group of five as he made his way towards the stairs, the escape route that had become his focal point. The group of five were all still looking at him. Should he say something or just leave? He decided there was nothing he wanted to say and averted his eyes from their gaze. As he went up the stairs and into the bright light he knew he had made the right move. Regardless of what lay ahead he was now ready for Jaz and the visit to Canberra House.