July 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Katharine’s place

By Alice Pung
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

I am in Greenmount, Western Australia. The sign outside the house says Katharine's Place, but I didn't realise that her husband was still here, until Mardi told me. When she told me, I was staring at a bird in the gutter, at how the colours of death made it look so alive. Its wing and tail feathers were spread out in blue and yellow Crayola tones. The feathers on its neck looked like the fur of a bonsai rabbit. Bright red organs puffed out from the middle of its chest, like an external heart too large for its body. This was no factory chicken that had never seen the light of day, no endless writhing of suffering hung upside down by its legs to meet its end in spinning blades. This was some tropical glory of creation, smashed by a vehicle in a car park in suburban Perth.

"Are you afraid of ghosts?" Mardi asked.

It depended on what kind of ghosts they were.

"Sometimes you can hear the footsteps of Hugo Throssel walking through the house." He was Katharine Susannah Prichard's husband, and Mardi told me that that when she stayed at Katharine's Place, she had heard his footsteps. "But don't worry," she said. "He's a benign ghost." Throssell was a celebrated war veteran: he fought in Gallipoli and won the Victoria Cross during World War I. He had taken his own life at this house during the Great Depression, while his wife was overseas promoting her books.

I am staying at Katharine's Place for a writer's residency. Mardi May, a local author and editor, picked me up from the airport and took me to the market so I could buy a week's supply of groceries, because I will be quite secluded in the house. I arrived to a house full of friendly helpers, the committee members who kept Katharine's Place alive, co-ordinated by Lynn Gumb, chair of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre. "We're fixing your house for you," Lynn told me. Old wooden furniture was being moved back in after the floorboards had been shined, including the piano David Helfgott used to play when he visited. I helped unpack a box of gifts that were given to Katharine: books, paintings, a boomerang and a wooden spear. Some of the things were very old, because she had lived here for most of her life, from 1919 to 1969. Through three generations, my family has not even lived in one country for that long, and we do not own anything made before 1980.

This is the house in which Katharine Susannah Prichard, born in 1883 with "ink in her veins", worked to become one of Australia's first internationally acclaimed authors. She wrote in her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, that "the happiest years of my life were spent in our home at Greenmount in the West. My best literary work was done there." She had spent the first ten years of her married life in this home, and as newlyweds she and her husband used to disport themselves "like Adam and Eve in the garden" overlooking the Perth hilltops.

Soon, everyone leaves, and I am alone in the house to get on with my business. My parents would be alarmed if they knew about the nature of the place - "Taking annual leave to spend it in a house with ghosts!" - so when I call home in the evening, I don't tell them about the noises. The first night, when I hear the creaks, I turn on the radio and sleep with it through to morning. But then I hear footsteps during the day, too. I start to listen closely. Up and down the wooden floorboards. Small animals do not walk upside down beneath floorboards.

Sometimes there seems to be more than one person walking, probably because Katharine also died here, in her old age. The locals called her the Red Witch of Greenmount, and when there were government raids, she used to hide her communist propaganda in the now-heritage-protected plumbago bushes outside the house. She had truly believed in communism: "it was the answer to what I had been seeking: a satisfactory explanation of the wealth and power which control our lives - their origin, development, and how, in the processes of social evolution, they could de directed towards the well-being of a majority of the people, so that poverty, disease, prostitution, superstition and war would be eliminated; peoples of the world live in peace, and grow towards perfecting their existence on this earth."

My grandmother was a communist too, back in China. Her parents sent her to the Chaozhou teachers' college, where she learned to read and write, and soon she decided to write about landlords abusing the rights of the peasants. Her writing sent her into exile, to Cambodia; she survived the killing fields and came to Australia when in her seventies. She taught me Buddhist sutras to chant in the dark. She knew the Heart Sutra off by heart and could even sound it out phonetically in Pali.

When my grandmother died, I hoped that she would walk our house, but she had never stayed a night in our new home. She was very sick before she died; she lay in bed for six years, blinking at the ceiling. Some things she saw there made her very sad, and on rare occasions some things made her laugh. After a while, I realised she wasn't seeing things in the ceiling, but in her mind.

There was a writer at Katharine's Place in the early '90s who needed to bring in an exorcist - but Grandmother wasn't scared of benign ghosts, so neither am I. Benign ghosts were white people, the ones who took such good care of my family when they came to Australia. My grandmother would have liked Katharine Susannah Prichard, a beautiful woman whose photographs grace the walls of the house, her face smiling beatifically at her first Asian author-in-residence. When Katharine was alive, society still considered people like me to be the Yellow Peril.

At the end of my residency, I ask Mardi again about the ghosts. "Oh, who knows?" she says reassuringly. "Sometimes the wind makes noises. And it's an old house. It creaks." But I did hear footsteps, I tell Mardi. A quiet and steady amble, and sometimes small scuffling sounds. My grandmother also had a shuffling walk: her feet were afraid to be far from the ground, in case she fell over.

"I can't believe you were told about the ghosts on your first day," Aminah, a songwriter and the caretaker of the writers' centre, says. "You weren't meant to know that until the end of your trip." But I am glad Mardi told me. Perhaps there is no ghost, but I would be disappointed if that were the case. We all see what we want in our heads.

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda and Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on John Marsden.

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