It was late at night, maybe after midnight, out on an open road, or at least that sidewinding, treacherous snake of a highway whose name had been tagged to many a teenage dream, many a drunken cop, too. I had the radio going & was high on something (sex, or was it the drugs? All of a sudden 'Don't Pay the Ferryman' came on and together, Chris de Burgh and I, we chased after life, both of us speeding like men on the run. You know I understood how that felt, to be on speed, and to be running at the same time, except I was behind the wheel of a suitably de rigeur 1982 Datsun sedan, and I was crying while de Burgh offered his words of dark advice, sounded even then an eerily familiar tone I'd spent a lifetime preparing myself for. The journey, though I didn't know where I was going, would take me to Brooklyn, where the tides' tissue kisses pummell against the shore's soft skin. Who was I to care, with the radio on & the window rolled down & smoke from the fires in the Kuring- gai Chase lending my voyage an urgency it hadn't really possessed up until that moment (consisting only of what seemed like whole hours of montage footage, back in my inner-city house)? Let's face it, I'd never know what it felt like to lie in a police station cell; I'd never hook a mulloway with my reel; but in the clean dark, on the outsider's in, I'd cross a river, and wait for the man with the tickets, or was it keys. He is closer, I can feel his pulse. I'm not thinking about Chris de Burgh now but Bow from Front End Loader playing 'Pulse' on Recovery, a song that was really about everyone who'd died, or was it just one special person, the one we never loved enough? Now my search is on for a band that sounds as desperately sad as they did then; even the Youtube clip I'm looking at fades in and out like videotape, because it was dumped straight from VHS to CSS and who really cares about tagging this kind of detail anyway? I was reading from a setlist in the mind, or was it Wards of the State - as well as less inspiring stuff and recalled how engrossed I was in a scene, though I never met anyone famous, and didn't want to. Didn't care for rivers north of Sydney, or driving at all, really. In fact I didn't even have a licence or a car back then, so how I got from Surry Hills to Brooklyn I'll never know. I blame the speed, not you. Yes, there was a ragged hill, I must have been close to Brooklyn by then. I was sure I could just pull off the highway somewhere, hide the car and crawl down the rocky riverbank, below the rush of traffic and speed, under police radars as well. And there was a boat on the river, right. It was all going according to some kind of plan. I felt like a joint. A long, thin joint with just a few strands of tobacco. That would have stilled my speeding heart, at least until the moment of our meeting. And when the rain came down I shivered, as you do, when on speed. Is it just me or did I just hear a wild dog howl? Was that somebody stubbing their toe on a loose nail on the jetty? I must have been reading, because all I could hear was three voices, sotto voce whispering "Don't do it!" That's right, the night had three voices, and all of them were advising me not to do what I had clearly set out to do and would patently not stop trying to do until a better option came along. Gutless voices out of sight, too afraid to say "Don't do it!' to my face, inside the Datsun on the river. 'Whatever you do', those three cowardly voices seemed to be suggesting, 'Don't pay this ferryman you're going to meet in a minute', and I was like 'what the hell are you talking about? I've dumped my car down by the Hawkesbury river at Brooklyn, now I'm supposed to catch a Rivercat ferry? How? Chorus! I began to roll a small joint from the rolling mist, just to calm myself down. I mean, think about it: pitch black, down by a dark river, looking for someone I was clearly not going to find in the state I was in then. My mouth ached for cough syrup, my mind for mandies. So, cue rolling mist. I was searching for some material to make a filter from when a small canoe pulled up in front of me. 'Bob?' I whispered, and dropped the joint. Through my visions I could see the hooded old man at the rudder subtly nod his head. Okay, that's good enough for me, I thought, and got on board. 'Now there'll be no turning back', the hooded man said to me in a kind of wretched b-grade voice that I realised, instantly, was not the voice of Robert Adamson. But then, who? 'Beware that -' crooned Chris, without needing to finish his sentence, as it was clearly this maniacal 'old man at the rudder' he was talking about. Where the voice of Chris de Burgh was coming from by then I'm not sure. Perhaps I'd left the stereo on in the Datsun. & then the lightning flashed, etc, thunder roared just as it did in the song, & the ferryman was holding out a map of a river, and he was pointing to a small reach of the river, where an even smaller red dot, as small as the pin-prick hole of a fit, bore the label 'Bob'. And then I was one of the people calling out his name in incredulous whispers - 'Bob?' The ferryman again nodded his head, and I knew that I really did need that joint after all. It seemed he was trying to take me to the other side of this river, where Adamson lived, along with all of those dancing bones that jabbered and a-moaned on the water, the bones of dead mulloway and mullet. And then the ferryman said there was trouble ahead, with which I readily agreed, as it seemed that ahead of us lay a flotilla of small boats, the boats of all the other Australian poets (mostly male) who had tried and failed to get to the other side of the river, where Bob Adamson may or may not have lived at some stage. Damn, I thought, and I'm out of cough mixture. 'So you must pay me now," said the kind of creepy-looking guy at his toy rudder. I refused, remembering those sotto voce instructions not to do it, their vaguely anti-Nike sentiments, but the ferryman would have nothing of that, repeating his demand, then holding out a book of his own verse, a slim volume that had clearly been cobbled together on some public servant's photocopier. "You must pay me or buy a chapbook now," he said again and I held up my hand and said, 'Look, everyone else is telling me not to, so I'm not budging, is that clear enough?' And still that voice came from beyond, a voice of reason, or was that John Forbes, advising me not to pay this creepy guy claiming to be Robert Adamson, because in all probability he was not Robert Adamson at all, but in fact some kind of pirate poet whose verses would strip paint from my dinghy. Chorus! The ferryman tried to perform some kind of grappling hold on me, but then his death grip loosened and I fell, gasping, to the floor of the ferryboat. The reason for the ferryman's reaction soon became apparent: We had landed on the other side of the river! Not only that but somehow I had also made it to the other side without paying! Repeat Chorus! And as the ferryman faded out, the radio DJ (or was it me) had the good sense (or was it just comic timing) to cue in 'Ship To Shore'. I sat there, my feet dangling over the jetty, waiting for Robert Adamson to appear. So still now.
Chris de Adamson: ‘Don’t Pay the Ferryman’
1 October 2008