December 2006 - January 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Kate and the whale

By Ashley Hay
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

On her third day in Sydney, in late October, Kate George was hoping to see elephants. Given her success with earlier wishes, the chances seemed better than good. On her second day, she'd hoped for looping, diving, stomach-churning thrills from the funfair rides at Luna Park - and got them. On her first day, she'd hoped for a swim at Bondi Beach, and for the biggest whale in the world - and got both. None of which was surprising, because Kate George's trip to Sydney was not an ordinary sort of trip, and Kate George was not an ordinary sort of visitor.

It was a sticky grey day, that Sunday, the glare of the clouded sun turning Kate's hair a glowing ginger as she arrived at Taronga Park Zoo. There was a koala called Durrell she could meet (she approached him with great caution), a giraffe she could feed (but its big blue-black tongue was a bit daunting), a seal show she could watch (which made her smile her huge and curvingly shy smile). But there were no elephants: they were still making their way slowly from Thailand to the smart new enclosure that sat tauntingly empty as she passed over in the zoo's cable car. Were there any other animals she'd like to see as much as an elephant? "A crocodile," she said. "I like crocodiles. I fed one up in Darwin." She thought they might be her favourite animals, after all. Yet she was nervous about getting close to a koala? She shrugged. "I like crocodiles. I like looking at pictures of them, reading books about them."

Fourteen years old and living in the remote Northern Territory community of Wugulaar, in Beswick, Kate had been the kind of reader who inspired Queensland bookseller Suzy Wilson to set up the first incarnation of the Australian Reading Challenge in 2004. The challenge raises funds as people - mainly schoolchildren - register to raise sponsorship by reading a set number of books; the money goes towards resources for improving literacy in Indigenous communities.

Kate was a student in a world where literacy rates sat as low as 7%, her own reading stranded in primary-school words. Within a year of a literacy program's arrival under the auspices of the Challenge, she had made enormous strides; when Wilson visited Beswick in 2005, she was heading for high school and, in the words of her principal, "tackling an enormous novel": Herman Melville's Moby Dick. As Melville's charming narrator, Ishmael, would say, "the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open."

Because, as luck would have it, another reader had been taken by that same book. John Bell, the country's master Shakespearean actor and the artistic director of the Bell Shakespeare Company, had found himself with a little time, a desire to act and a well-thumbed copy of Melville's classic, and set about constructing a one-man version of the story. His monologue premiered in Tasmania in 2005, making its way to Sydney for a run this October. The Reading Challenge people heard about the Bell Shakespeare performances, Bell Shakespeare heard about Kate reading Moby Dick 200 kilometres east of Katherine, and a plan was hatched. She would fly to Sydney to meet John Bell, talk with him about the book and see his version of her whale.

At the Glen Street Theatre that Friday night, with the barest stage - one bench, one chair, one huge sheet of silver foil - Bell emerged in a thick fisherman's jumper, a swag of characters' idioms tucked around his own familiar voice, and played out Ahab's terrible quest and Ishmael's extraordinary survival in less than an hour and a half. It was like being read the most wonderful bedtime story.

"I loved the show," said Kate, "but I was pretty tired." She'd been in the city all day, been interviewed for television and photographed for a newspaper, been filmed with Bell and filmed reading a first edition of Melville's book at the State Library, her fingers tracing the dusty velvet of pages printed in 1851, more than a decade before John McDougall Stuart had trekked through those Jawoyn lands and called their river "Katherine". She'd been on her new mobile phone to her family back in Beswick, and she'd been in the water as much as she could, too: getting her feet wet as soon as possible in Sydney Harbour, at Mrs Macquarie's Chair, and diving under the waves at Bondi. Saturday at Luna Park was calm in comparison.

By Sunday, by the time she reached the zoo, the whale end of the excursion was well and truly over. She had hoped to see a real one while in Sydney, but the zoo had none on offer, and those unpredictably migrating mammals that sometimes stop near the city made none of their calls while she was around. Now, she wanted pictures to take back to show her friends, her family. "Can we give him a photo?" she asked, watching the big black lump of a gorilla scratch its tummy, watching the long sleek streak of a seal dart through a pool. We could: photos of Kate and the gorillas, of Kate and the penguins, of Kate and the seals and the sun bears.

On her way into the koala enclosure, along from the tiny pen where she'd braved meeting Durrell, she encountered a man with a pram coming down as she walked up, and they had that ducking-and-weaving moment of busy people trying to pass each other in a city. Then the man paused. "You're the girl from the telly, the Moby Dick girl," he said. "I saw you on the news on Friday night." She smiled her lovely smile.

As the light stretched through Sunday evening, Kate was on a plane flying back across the continent to where she lives, to where she reads. I sucked the photos from my camera onto my computer, tapped in her email address and sent them to Beswick before she arrived. Time and space were nothing, though I had no sense of where those traces of her day were being sent. But it's the twenty-first century; nothing's a mystery. I typed in the latitude and longitude of Beswick and watched this continent spin across my screen, plummeting me towards a red-green landscape, a few dozen white roofs, a big blue awning, a smiling curve of waterholes. The image was so sharp I swear I could see the air moving the trees, was sure that - if I zoomed in at the right moment, on another day - I might see Kate walking below, her hair bright, wondering if she'd get her next wish of moving to Darwin to finish high school. Time and space were nothing. Which made it even nicer that a trusty old technology - pages, type, card, and glue to bind it all - could still cover that distance in its own way, and find someone to soak it up.

And before the week was out, a pod of five or six humpbacks passed by Sydney and called further down the east coast that Kate had left, leading their calves to the cold Antarctic waters.

Ashley Hay

Ashley Hay won last year’s Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing. Her last novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick Award and the People’s Choice category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published this April. She lives in Brisbane.

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