Main Street of Burra

By Kyra Bandte

I took my second-hand copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin down from my bookshelf and flipped through. Wedged between two pages, deep in the novel, was a photograph; mostly blue sky, with a wide stretch of road in the middle of a town. I knew it was a country town, because all country towns had angle parking and yellow buildings. It reminded me of Coonamble, out west where my family still had their feet in the hot soil. Out there, the old picture theatre was painted in the same cracked custard colour.

Flipping the photo over I read: Main street of Burra. S.A An old copper mining town – historic. Pearce’s Building – wonder if it is great grandfather John Pearce’s family – he had a lot of brothers, all miners. Something illegible and the date, 2000.

Atwood got laid aside, and I studied the front of the photograph more closely. Yes, it was there on the right, ‘Pearce’s Building’, just as the writer had said. And next to it, the ‘Burra Community Print’, and opposite, a gas station; the black road stretched out between old and new, striped with white like the first of a few grey hairs. Blue-charcoal clouds gathered in the top right hand corner, ready to burst out and drench the land in deep rains. Or maybe the clouds were just passing by. This I would never know.

An online search proved the writer correct, Burra was a mining town. She was right about the copper too. Wait, I didn’t even know if the writer was a ‘she’, though I could almost see the delicate wrists through the loopy cursive handwriting. The online map showed Burra as a small spot about a centimetre off the South Australian coast. I imagined Coonamble as a similar inflamed bump on Australia’s skin, somewhere on the cheek of New South Wales.

There was no sign of ‘great grandfather John Pearce’ on the website. Nothing about Pearce at all that I could see. But he must have been important to have a whole building on the main street, his name moulded into the plaster in big brown capitals. I saw the writer, the photographer, standing on the street. They were using a camera where you had to wind back the film, crck-crck-crck, and pay to get blurry photos developed. They waited til the street was empty, no cars driving past, no people. Maybe it was a public holiday and the stores were closed. The camera shutter clicked just as the first fat raindrops started to fall, and they went back to their car, took off their sunglasses and wished that the cafe across the street was open.

I tucked the photo into the top nook of my desk and put The Blind Assassin back on the bookshelf. Whoever put the photo in the book had never finished reading it and I wasn’t going to start that night.

I didn’t look at the photo for days, maybe even a week. But when I took it back down, it felt as though I had stolen a personal moment, that I was holding a memory I didn’t have the copyright for. It must have been important to somebody, to chase up their family, to document a single street. And yet they’d used history as a bookmark and given it away. The street itself, I had easily fallen for; yet the person behind the camera, I could not understand. The parked cars here and there could have easily been my uncle’s, my auntie’s; the cars I had sat in the back of and not worn a seatbelt as we drove to the shops for crayons. The double-story pub wrapped in the decorative wooden veranda, I could have walked past countless times on my way to family dinners and cold beer bottles in Nan’s house. The naked branches growing from the right of the picture could have been any tree I had ever seen on the seven-hour drive, any tree in the grey tussock fields, or in the middle of Coonamble’s only round-a-bout.

I left the photograph behind, but packed the Atwood book into a small suitcase along with summer dresses, flip-flops, and undies. My digital camera went into a handbag that I could keep on the front seat, and when I found my brown sunnies I just drove.

Kyra Bandte is a writer and reader based in Wollongong, who has just completed four years of creative writing and English literature at UOW. She is currently working on the first draft of her first novel, and is a regular contributor for Writer’s Edit. Kyra’s favourite writing past-time is making similes that sometimes turn into smiles.