Chris de Adamson: ‘Don’t Pay the Ferryman’

1 October 2008

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.

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