Read The Electrical Experience Online
Authors: Frank Moorhouse
T. George McDowell believes in getting the job done.
'I do not care for words in top hats. I believe in shirt-sleeve words. I believe in getting the job done. We're like that on the coast.'
T. George McDowell, a manufacturer of soft drinks on the south coast of New South Wales, prides himself on extolling the virtues of progress. He is a Rotarian and exponent of wireless, refrigeration and electricity. He is a Realist and a Rationalist - a 'fair man but hard as nails' according to his staff - but trouble in the shape of his youngest daughter, Terri, tests his values and beliefs, and he finds that his own sexual longings begin to intrude in his dreams.
First published in 1974, The Electrical Experience is an at times humorous examination of the Australian soul, and won the National Book Council Award for Fiction.
She was nurtured in the good fellowship and the ethics of this home, T. George McDowell said to the American who was sitting in the lounge-room staring into his drink.
In this very lounge-room.
They had played draughts, Terri and he.
In 1939, when she was born, somehow then you were known as a person, if you wanted something done you knew who to see, if someone said they would do something it got done, you knew who you were dealing with and they knew you, and if you had something on your mind you said it. The street was filled with faces you knewâBishops, Youngs, Millers, Ferriers, Watts. A dentist surgery with a painted window. Why, at least the dentist surgery still smelled the same. He knew the blinking name of that smell. He remembered it from a talk given to Rotary just after the war. He knew the name of that smell if only he could bring it to mind. The telephone was partly to blame. Before the war you could always get to see the Boss of the Show and not some under ling. Now you didn't know if you were speaking to the managing director or the office cat. And people didn't go out to see the problem for themselves, they simply âgot on the telephone'.
The so-called drug problem had enveloped his own daughter, Terri. He saw it more as the Bohemian Problem. These people who put themselves apart. It was nothing new. He remembered a case about the time she was born. A case of a farm-hand who'd been caught smoking opium under a gum-tree. Near Huskisson. Not a Chinese, an Australian. There was talk also about Old Scribner, a poet of sorts, an educated man, talk about him and opium. Even in this very town. But they were people who'd given up. He did not have a solution to the Bohemian Problem. Did this American here in the lounge-room know something about it?
Terri, even as a child, had a will of her own. They hadn't put her birth in the paper. It was considered unwise to put birth notices in the newspaper. That unsavoury interest in whether the child had been conceived in wedlock. Not that there could have been any doubt with Thelma and he, married fifteen years. But you couldn't win. There was talk, suggestion and gossip that it had been a âmistake'. Thelma and he had planned to have three children and that was that. Some said that gypsies passing through a town would look to see if there were new births in the newspaper and then steal the child. He gave that no credence.
The temperature was 105. Black Saturday. The sky turned black. The sun could not be properly seen. There was some thing unnaturally fearful about losing sight of the sun. Some were saying the town would be burned. Some mentioned the end of the world. Villages along the coast disappeared in smoke and flame. Burnt
leaves dropped from the sky. The bay was black with burnt ash and the water could not be seen. A scorching wind drove the flamesâlike frightened horses. He endeavoured to put a stop to talk about the end of the world. Oh, that heat.
It was like looking into a furnace. The town was open to draught, a city is not. He was no city man. He went to the city only on business. On the other hand he was not a village man. A place like Tomerong was not for him. A post-office, store and
plus Ethyl bowserâone of the first bowsers along that stretch. You had to find the right-size place for the size of man you were.
He told the American about his own first visit to the States, to the St Louis Rotary Convention back in 1923.
âHow is it I can remember the address of the St Louis Coliseum from 1923, but I forget the name of someone I met ten minutes ago? Why is that?'
âIt is an often remarked characteristic of later years, sir.'
This American was a likeable chap.
Some said America was the greatest nation the world had known. He'd heard a fellow refute that. The
didn't have the largest populationâChina did. It didn't have the biggest navy, England did. It didn't have the biggest army, France did. It wasn't the healthiest nation, Sweden was. Russia produced more wheat. Germany produced more steel. The Swiss were more democratic. Australia had the best sportsmen. South
Africa had more gold. And the United States could not claim to be the most moral nation, with its gangsters.
Still, that was all a long time back. That was what they were saying before the war.
He had a lot of time for the Americans.
When she was born, the town was ringed with fire. He gave a dozen boxes of soft drinks from the factory to the fire-fighters. A public-address system on the back of a van cried out a crackled appeal from the Mayor for volunteers.
A drifter was burned to death near Jerry Bailey. His body was so charred they couldn't lift it. In the heat and sweat of it all he said, damn it, let's put the bones in a box and bury it. They buried the bones virtually on the spot. No one said anything about it. Yalwal was burned to the ground. The townfolk of Yalwal spent a day standing full-clothed in the creek. They stood in the creek up to their necks, singing from a songster, flames all around them. Someone found the songster in their pocket and thought singing was a good idea. Both sides of the creek were ablaze.
A post-office savings bank burned down, and the safe cracked open in the heat. Money was burned. Money sweated and laboured for disappeared in ash. It was like flesh and blood burning. No one could get near the post-office for the heat.
A relief party consisting of Eric McElphone, the coroner, Dr Trenbow, Nurse Denison, and the Harvey Brothers, two of the strongest men in the district, drove three motor-cars to save outlying farmers.
Ted Henson took his horse with him into a creek, and the heat of the burning bush scorched the leather of the saddle. The flames were a hundred feet high. The green leaves burned like paper.
The hooves of the cows fell off from the scorching. Cedric Binks lay face down in a cave and almost suffocated because the fire drew the oxygen from the cave.
The town stopped work to fight the fire.
He visited Thelma that evening in the hospital, taking with him their electric fan for her personal use.
It was almost as though the day had affected Terri, the newborn baby. Perhaps the roaring noise of the fire, the smell of burning eucalyptus and the fear surrounding her, disturbed her for ever.
He saw the Thompson home burn to the ground and it had made ice in his blood and broken his breathing.
The cement washtubs always survived. He saw the burnt de-luxe ice-chest, the porcelain lining cracked by heat. The sight and smell of burned clothes unsettled him, but he couldn't stop himself staring. There was no water, there was nothing that could be done. It was as though the occupant's personal odour was being let loose instead of being kept privately within the four walls of a house. Burned personal things. Things saved, half saved, dragged burning from the house, now smouldering. The paved path leading nowhere. The laid-out garden edged with house bricks. A tap upright in the garden.
A family burned out and exposed.
He'd given to the fund. He couldn't recall how much. Was it Â£5?
Birds fell from the sky. Magpies, peewees, parrots, fell dead from the sky.
Fire and water gave no mercy.
The town had three enemies: fires; water; the city.
City interests always worked against the country town.
Somehow no one seemed to fear fire and water much these days.
A difficult birth. The sky was black. He drank a lot of cordial that day. Everyone did. He was left with no stocks.
The freedom to buy and sell. The freedom to make what you wanted and to sell as you saw fit. The people who could take raw, unshapen material from the earth and organise it into something of value were a special kind of person. He had always been proud to be that kind of person. He was a producer who made other people's skills go to work. He did not do it for wealth. He was not a flashy dresser. Did not own a racehorse or a seaside cottage. Unlike Curlewis, who, anyhow, had inherited. He had the capital if he wanted that style of life, but that was not what he considered the purpose of Business.
The policeman's widow had been speeding along the highway through a tunnel of flames in her Essex and had struck a fallen tree. The branch, still burning, had pierced her heart. It had passed through her left breast, through the nipple, into her heart, still burning until
extinguished by her blood. So the men who found her said. One told Backhouse at the newspaper about it. She was pinned to the seat of the Essex. They pulled her off the seat and carried her from the car with the branch through her heart.
He regretted his association with her. As a young widow she had not been popular. Young widows are never popular with the married women. She had been on her way out of the town for goodâthe Essex contained all her possessions. She had told no one she was leaving.
People leaving like that sometimes meant the end of a town. You never quite knew deep down whether a town would go ahead. You looked a town over and decided to settle. He never rented. He always owned and built. It was an act of faith in one's own good judgement about the town.
You never really knew whether a town would go ahead or go back. He'd seen a town die.
He'd seen them one by one pull out of a town as he was growing up. The hardware store closed, the baker left, the barber. His childhood friends disappeared overnight.
It chilled his very being.
Only last week he stood looking at the salesyard, disused for thirty years, the rusted reservoir. What was left of the blacksmith's shop. The anvil was still there. The forge. They just walked out at the end. Boarded-up, deserted houses. Rubbish of people who lived there thirty, forty years ago. The hotel burned down
probably for insurance. You could see where the life of the town had flown. Like a moving picture suddenly stopped. The people became an old photograph. They had walked along the wooden plank verandas, which served as a footpath. All weathering and rotting back into the soil.
He remembered chasing his childhood friends along the street. There'd been bargaining and buying. People danced at the Memorial Hall. The floor now fallen out. Billy Ryan laid that floor.
There'd been committees and they'd planned improvements to the town. Signs had been put up, some still standing, unheeded, no people behind the words.
One man could hold a town. You had to watch. One day you might find that people were privately selling out. Others began leaving overnight, bills unpaid. Farewell functions for government people became more frequent and they were not replaced.
His childhood friends disappeared overnight.
The policeman's widow had left without a word.
But this town was solid.
Terri could have stayed in the town, instead she chose a life of disorder. People kept an eye on each other in the town. Now she was in the city being looked after by a psychiatrist. Perhaps the city was not her size.
When a business fell, it shook the town. But you had to look to see if it was bad management or the town that was at fault.
Like the ice-making business. It used to be one of the
biggest in town. Refrigeration put an end to that. He always said it was one business where the raw material was free.
He thanked god for refrigeration. It made this country bearable. And carbonated soft drinks which he brought to the town. Although it was his business he still delighted in the powerful fizzing coldness of a good soft drink as it hit the mouth and tongue. Made you know you had a mouth that could
And the milk-âshake'. He'd introduced that to the coast too. It was good for the coast. The Milky Way. Ayrshires, Jerseys, Friesians, Illawarra Shorthorns, Guernseys. He had grown up on a dairy farm farther down the coast. He was a town man but not ashamed to have been a dairy farmer's son.
The South Coast produced a better sort of person. Quicker to take to new techniques, quick to understand technical matters. A technical type of person. Independent of the city. Fishermen, farmers, and business men. Not having the railway helped. Kept the coast separate. Made it what it was. He'd said this many times. Made them rely on each other. It helped people to be separated from the city and all its Public Servants and Unions. He liked Kangaroo Valley farther up the coast. They were a separate people and better for it.
But he was a town man.
This American chap seemed a decent sort of fellow.
The American knew his daughter Terri up in the city.
She had left the town and her family, gone her own way.
âThere is high authority,' he said to the American, âfor the proposition that a child owes no natural affection to the parent â¦'
The city sapped the towns of the young.
âShe would, as a child, ask herself questions and give herself answers.'
You never knew, perhaps the heat of the day of her birth had something to do with her personality, had scorched her. Seared her.
âWhere then,' he asked the American, âdo you find Peace of Mind? Rotary does not pretend to solve the Great Mysteries, but it teaches how to organise life and give it a System. It has taken rules from many places and welded them into a creed and a code.'
T. George McDowell paused, considered, and said, âBut I do not care for words in top hats. I believe in shirt-sleeve words. I believe in getting the job done. We're like that on the coast. We believe in the right technique and the right machine.'
And the Right Frame of Mind. The Right Frame of Mind could be brought about. The ability to smile and keep on smiling had a lot to do with it.
There was a Chinese proverb: âA man without smile should not open shop.'
He and Thelma left the lights burning in the house at night as a way of smiling to the world.
âWe're all mechanics on the South Coast. Not like out West or up the North Coast. We're not slow to
change or to see the next move. We're all mechanically minded and Systematic.'
He'd liked talking with this American.
Life's experience had taught him that never once had speaking to a stranger been anything but to his advantage. Although inherently shy as a young man, he had learned early to talk to someone as if they owed you money. In all his life, including his world travel, the only person with whom he had been unable to converse in good fellowship was his daughter Terri, and this was a source of some distress to both and Thelma.