The Road to Summerdown

The narrow road undulates its way across the landscape, rising and falling with the understated, crumpled movement of the land. A car passes noisily, and a while later another. A brief respite of quiet, and a third trundles into view, spitting clouds of light grey smoke after the fashion of a vehicle that has worn its gaskets for a while longer than is good for them. Unlike the earlier cars this one however is slowing, and it draws to a halt at the point where several similar small roads converge.

A closer look reveals that the car wears P-Plates like badges of office - they are perhaps the brightest and newest component of the car, excepting possibly the driver. A young girl-woman of perhaps seventeen years of age, she is alone in this vehicle and appears to be getting progressively more annoyed, though it is unclear whether her irritation is directed at the car, herself or the world in general. She is at this moment flicking from page to page in a road atlas, attempting with a marked lack of success to determine her location from the maps. Her motions jerky with annoyance, she unbelts herself, flings open the car door and steps into the long-shadowed light, carrying the road atlas by one cover like a prisoner of war. Flicking her long mousy hair out of her eyes with a toss of her head, she opens the map book again to a likely page and studies the signpost at the intersection, her head a little to one side.

"Archdale 7, Natte Yallock 8, Dunolly 15, Summerdown 50," she murmurs, attempting to translate the road sign into a location on a map. She frowns, and tries again. "Dunolly, Summerdown, Natte many bloody towns with such bloody stoopid names can there be?" She tosses the hapless road atlas into the dried grass at the road verge, and stands arms akimbo, frowning at the many-limbed road sign. This is the first time she has travelled in the country by herself, and while she is not confident of her ability to find towns she has never heard of (maps notwithstanding), she is determined that she will not let that stop her. She is between school-leaving and job-finding, and suspects that if she succeeds in finding work she will not be free to wander around the countryside at will. So if she is to do any travelling, it had better be now, or she may not be able to again for some time.

Wotthehell...our intrepid explorer is of the opinion that she is at least in the correct corner of the state, and if she keeps moving she may encounter a road sign pointing to the town she is after. Though with the sun dropping in the sky, it had better happen quickly...

She gathers her dusty road map to herself and gets back in the car, restarts the engine, turns down the undulating road towards Dunolly. Some fifteen or twenty minutes later, she discovers that Dunolly (like all the other towns she has passed through in the last couple of hours) does not have any signs that lead her unerringly to Maldon, the town of her destination. It has plenty of others though; quite a plethora of road signs, in fact. She can now choose from Tarnagulla (16 kilometres away), Havelock (12 kms), Moliagul (15 kms), Summerdown again (still 50 kms, though presumably a different 50), Timor (13), Rathscar (19) or Murphy's Creek (also 13, but down a dirt road). Once again she fishes out her trusty road atlas, and suppressing tears of frustration, she lays it on the car bonnet and attempts to find Maldon.

She is distracted as she glares at the map by a shadow passing across in front of her. She looks up to see a young man looking at her quizzically.

"You look lost," he says in a lazy voice.

State the obvious, why don't you? she thinks. Restraining a sharp retort, she agrees. "Yes. I'm supposed to be going to the Maldon Folk Festival, but I think it'll be over before I find Maldon."

"Maybe we can help each other out, then," drawls the young man. She looks at him dubiously, unsure whether to be worried or pleased by this half-offer.


"Weeell, I had planned to go the festival meself, but the ute blew up yesterday. If you can drive me to Maldon and drop me back here after the festival, I reckon I could probably navigate for you."

She decides to accept the offer at face value since the alternative is staying lost. "Thanks. That'd be great. I'm Miriam - who are you?"

"Jim Smith. You up from the city?"

And thus Jim and Miriam make one other's acquaintance. Jim navigates them to Maldon with the effortlessness born of long acquaintance with the area. She finds his company relaxed and undemanding, and he in turn seems to welcome an opportunity to show off his local knowledge. It transpires that Jim has just this last week been accepted into an apprenticeship in the metalwork trades down in Melbourne, and he wishes to celebrate at the folk festival before heading off to the "big smoke" in a week's time. Miriam offers him her phone number, saying that if he's going to be in the neighbourhood, it'd be nice to stay in contact. He promises to contact her as soon as he gets himself established, and they part cheerily, Jim having mapped out a route back to Melbourne for Miriam. This, he informs her, is to ensure that she'll be in Melbourne by the time he rings her, rather than wandering around central Victoria giving lifts to strange men.


Time passes. Months gather into years, and the years in turn become a decade. Miriam, as she anticipates, does succeed in finding work; initially as a receptionist in a small manufacturing business, and later, when she grows tired of the demands made on the only non-family member in a small family business, as a clerk in a large insurance firm. She does not find the work satisfying, but it is better than being unemployed. Still, her life is not without rewards. Jim Smith kept his promise, and not only have they kept in touch, but they have been married this last five years. Jim finished his apprenticeship some while ago, and works in a car factory. Their life, while not filled with fireworks and excitement, is quietly comfortable. In the last few years it has been occupied by small children, baby food and nappies; Jim insisted that she stay home to look after their two offspring, and while she privately suspects that it would have been better for the household if she had worked part time and hired a child minder for that time, she is loath to raise her uncertain suggestions in the face of Jim's confident assertions. She doesn't mind life as a housewife too much, although at times she resents the lost independence and spontaneity.

At this point in time, life has a few more fireworks and excitement that it is normally wont to. Jim's employer has opened a manufacturing plant in Adelaide, and he has applied for a position there, at a substantial increase in pay. To his delight and Miriam's misgivings, he has won the promotion, and they are in the process of transferring their household, effects and chattels to the new home.

Miriam has not as yet seen the new home, a point that causes her not a little discomfort. Jim went on ahead and organised purchase of the new family home; he said that he didn't want the children to suffer the disruption of two moves in such short time, and he didn't want to have them stay with friends while Miriam came to Adelaide with him house hunting as this would be too disruptive also. Yes, it was in the family's best interests for things to occur as they had. Once again, she is not convinced, but there is no arguing with Jim when he gets an idea in his head, as she has found out on many occasions previously. Still, it'll probably all be fine when they get there.

They have been on the road for two days, it being fairly clear to both Jim and Miriam that the children would find the unbroken run in the heat of summer unbearable. Last night they stopped in a motel in Horsham, and the children, squealing with glee, got to swim in the Horsham swimming pool. They left Horsham as early in the morning as practically possible, and they are now approaching Adelaide. They could have come the straightforward way, down the South Eastern Freeway right onto the plains and into the city, but Miriam, tired of flat desert and desiccated yellow farmland, wishes to detour through the Hills and look at the scenery. The children, tired and fractious in the midday heat, perk up surprisingly at the idea, so it is agreed.

They turn off the freeway at Hahndorf, and Miriam laughingly reminds Jim of what happened last time she tried to navigate between country towns. Amused, Jim replies that if she gets them lost this time he will tie her to the front of the car and make her tow them to Adelaide to make up for the wasted petrol. The children think this is a wonderful idea, and ask her to get out of the car now and demonstrate. Declining, she unfolds a map and runs off a list of town names - Balhannah, Woodside, Cherryville, Uraidla.

"Which ones do you want to see?" she asks the general company. The children, for once, are unanimous - they think that Uraidla has such a funny name, it must be a truly hilarious town. So after stopping for lunch at a charming coffee shop in Hahndorf, they head off toward Uraidla. The twisty, winding roads and bucolic landscape have the entire family charmed - even laid-back, down--to-earth Jim, who is not prone to romantic flights of fancy. They travel slowly, drinking it all in. At the main intersection at Balhannah,. Miriam glances at the signpost to ensure that they are travelling along the correct route, and then, surprisedly, looks back at the sign again as they pass it.

"That's really odd!" she says.

"What is?" asks Jim.

"There was a town on the road sign that wasn't anywhere on this road map."

"So what's odd about that? Maybe the map's out of date. Or p'raps the sign is."

"I suppose you're right," she says quietly, accustomed to being regarded as slightly silly. So she decides not to tell him the detail that she found particularly startling - the fact that the name of the town on the sign is the same unrecorded town that so confused her embryonic navigation skills in central Victoria a decade or so ago.

The sign had said "Summerdown, 40 kms".


Time passes. Miriam's life unrolls down the corridor of years. As the children grow and become adults Miriam, stirred by thoughts of lost childhood dreams, persuades Jim that no great harm would accrue by her going "back to school", and perhaps that some benefits would come of it. He regards this idea with customary misgivings and cautions her that the family must always come first. She assures him with unfamiliar courage that the family has never been the less for her dedication, and perhaps the family might for once support something that she wishes to do.

Soon she is studying for a Bachelor of Arts, part time. Her offspring are tickled pink by this idea, but soon cease teasing when they realise she is serious. Several times Jim, possessive of her time and energies, almost persuades her to give up her study; but each time she holds her position. And at last, her great moment of glory arrives - her graduation, hazed all about with a rosy glow and clouds of cherubs, singing.

But there is a snake in her Eden. Jim, with an unfamiliar glint of spite in his eye, cannot bear to be eclipsed by his sweet, mousy little wife. On the day of her graduation he tells her, in specific, acid detail, of the pretty twenty-year-old clerical assistant at work, and about the overtime he has been putting in lately. This, he is sure, will jolt her into realising the error of her ways. Soon he will have back in his possession the shy, compliant lady he married. Unfortunately, he has misjudged the steel in the spine of this small, quiet woman. The years of lectures, tutorials and exams (part time) have given Miriam a confidence in her own stature to which Jim is quite blind. She packs her bags and leaves, weeping silently, and Jim stands in the doorway of their home, staring at his hands and wondering what he has destroyed.

She flies to Melbourne, and discovers that nobody wishes to employ a middle-aged ex-housewife, Bachelor of Arts or no. The only work available is that of a contract cleaner, washing supermarket floors. The pay is pitiful and the work backbreaking. So much for rosy glows. She discovers to her dismay that none of the folk she used to know when she lived here before are traceable, and that she misses her family more than she would have dreamed was possible.

A year of grey passes. The pain eases from the breath-taking, heart-stopping stab wound that it was, and becomes an ever-present ache. Her circumstances do not improve, but she is at least self-supporting (just). Her children visit for New Year, and she is amazed that she refrains from flinging herself upon them and asking How is he? Does he speak of me? They do not volunteer the information, and it goes unspoken. They return to Adelaide.

And then, wonder of wonders, the clouds part and sunlight touches the landscape. A letter from Jim arrives. She fingers it gingerly, hardly daring to open it. She gets a cup of tea, sits down, turns the envelope and turns it again. Finally, she musters courage and tears it across the side, exposing a single handwritten sheet.

Miriam, I miss you, it says simply in Jim's open, scrawly hand. Maybe we can talk. I've done a lot of thinking. If you want to see me, we could meet half way - could you come to the motel at Horsham?

Her hands shake so much that she spills her tea. Tears well in her eyes and she drops the note into her lap. A year's pain and loneliness break through her careful defences and she weeps aloud.

A week later she is on her way to Horsham. Not trusting herself to telephone, she has written back to Jim, and he calls her on the phone thirty-six hours after the letter is posted. This time she takes a Greyhound bus to Horsham - she wants the time to gather her thoughts, rehearse her lines. Watching idly out of the big bus windows as her mind races, she observes on four separate and widely-spaced occasions, signposts to the mythical Summerdown. Once again they all measure the same distance, though this time it is not forty kilometres but seventeen.

She frowns. She has checked her maps quite thoroughly on this subject, her curiosity having been piqued by Summerdown's previous appearances. She was rather disturbed to discover that, even in the most recent road atlases, no town by that name exists anywhere in Australia. The closest to that name is Summertown, in the Adelaide Hills, but she is as certain as she is of her own name that she has not confused the two. She resolves that one day she will track down that particular mystery, but puts it out of her mind for the moment as she has other things to worry about. The bus draws into Horsham.


Time passes. The marriage of Jim and Miriam, like a bone that has been broken and has reknit stronger than before, has an openness and sharing that had not been there before. Their time in Horsham was well spent - Jim realises that he cannot try to bind Miriam and expect to keep her, and Miriam discovers that it possible to spare Jim's pride without surrendering her own. They cleave together and rebuild, and soon they are as solid as the earth that they spring from.

She discovers, rather to her surprise, that she has a flair for writing poetry, and has a number of pieces printed in a local publication. He finds that his work is becoming too bogged down in politics and squabbling, pointless wrangling with which he has little patience. Together they agree that if Jim retires early, it will give them time to do and explore things they would not otherwise have time for.

When Jim leaves work, they decide to jump in at the deep end, and sign up for a boat-building course. At the end of six months they have a small but serviceable sailing boat. They sail it erratically around the Murray Mouth, not getting very far but having a wonderful time trying. All in all, life is very satisfying.

The wheel turns. The best of times cannot be frozen in amber, however much it is to be wished. Jim's heart has not been strong for the last couple of years, and finally that which they both fear occurs - Jim suffers a major heart attack while hauling the boat onto its ungainly trailer. The end is blessedly quick, and Miriam is spared the protracted distress that her mother suffered when her father succumbed in a similar way. In a way, his end is fitting - he would not have welcomed a lingering invalid death with crowds of relatives and medics in attendance like blowflies. Rather, he would prefer to be struck down like a strong old tree by lightning. Yes, a fitting way to end his life.

Initially Miriam keens and moans like a banshee, but as the tearing wounds in her soul begin to heal, she realises that life goes on. The pain of bereavement is quite different to the pain of a broken marriage, and though once again she feels as if the other half of her self is gone, she finds that it is not insurmountable, given enough time. The threads of existence re-weave around the space in her world, and eventually she is strong enough to continue.

Her mind begins to turn to the unsolved mystery of Summerdown. It is the only real loose thread in her life, and she finds herself picking at the problem, worrying at it until she thinks of little else. This obsession bothers her since she has never before been prone to obsessions. A little thought on the subject leads her to the conclusion that the only way to get rid of this nagging gadfly of a problem is to exorcise it properly. She gets the old car serviced and tuned up to the nines, fills the passenger seat with maps and atlases, and readies herself to finally find this elusive settlement (or at least find out why so many signs point to it). On a whim she takes Jim's favourite gold cufflinks, and hangs them from the rear-vision mirror like glittering dice.

And so she departs. She heads down the Great Ocean Road, a route she has heard much of and never seen. Taking her time, she explores thoroughly, stopping and investigating anything that takes her fancy. Deciding to avoid Melbourne she takes a back-road, ziz-zag route around it, returning then to the coast.

On a whim, she decides to visit the town she was born in. Port Albert is a small fishing village east of Moe, and she hasn't been there since she was a child. It is a mid-afternoon and her fatigue grows, but fortunately it is not a long drive from her present location. A sudden shot of pain hazes her vision for a moment - she must be more tired than she thought! She pulls over by the side of the road, and gets out of the car with the intent of stretching a little and hopefully easing the cramp (or whatever it is) under her ribs that is bothering her.

A few deep breaths, and the constriction eases. She is not as young as she was, and sometimes she expects to have the stamina of a younger woman. Why has she never adjusted to growing old? Old ladies are supposed to have blue rinses and sit sedately doing knitting. Neither of these pursuits have ever held the slightest appeal for Miriam. She wonders if it a subconscious resistance to aging that does it. She shrugs and gets back in the car. She is quite sure that boat building, cycling and long-distance ambles after dark are far more fun than knitting, so wotthehell.

She approaches an intersection, and her maligned subconscious notices before her conscious awareness does - this is the first sign that she has seen on this trip that points to Summerdown. But there is something odd about it. She can't quite place the anomaly at first, but a closer glance at the sign makes it clear to her - this one does not have a distance on it. It simply say "Summerdown" and indicates the direction.

She frowns, wondering at the possible implications. Then she gets back into the car, and drives resolutely in the direction indicated by the sign. A few kilometres further down the road and she encounters another sign of similar kind, this one pointing down a winding dirt road.

She suppresses a shudder. The sun is starting to approach the horizon, and she would do well to reach Port Albert before it gets too dark; but she is quite certain that if she turns back now she will not see these signs again. The hairs start to rise on her forearms. Beyond all logic, beyond all reason, she is sure that she is approaching a nexus point.

The road undulates over small hills edged by old, big gum trees on either side. The dark shadows under the trees seem to have a luminosity that draws her eyes. She sees no other cars on this road, and then realises that one of the features of this landscape that is so disquieting is that there is no animal life to be seen. No people, no sheep... no birds, even. The trees arch over the road, making an avenue of intertwined branches and leaves.

The sun is very low now - if she doesn't find something soon she will have to sleep in the car, a rather unappealing prospect. She suspects that the town in question may be one of the ghost-towns with which the Victorian countryside is scattered, and that she may have driven past it while looking at shapes in the shadows. Yet still she continues on, for reasons she would find difficult to name, let alone justify. The sky is crimson and copper and turquoise, and the landscape is picked out in delicate silhouette. The car coughs and rattles its way to the top of a long hill, and all of a sudden a frisson runs through her from head to toe. The lines converge, her heart stops.

For a sign on the hill says "Welcome to Summerdown", and before her a field of lights is arrayed in golden splendour.

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