In a drought that made the sky empty as a bell,
We arranged to meet in the city.
Black clouds ballooned up from the west,
Drenching drops cascaded down,
The glassy footpaths shattered.
Off the tram, you get with a walking stick,
Nearly 90 years of age,
Smile like the stable door’s been flung open
And you’re the horse that’s bolted,
Rivulets tugging at your feet
Hair dripping, shirt like wet blotting paper,
Lurching towards me with that eager smile,
The woman who got me into Ned Kelly’s funeral.
Ursula Gilbert, Sister of Mercy,
believes Dan Kelly and Steve Hart got away.
believes in the resurrection of Australia’s greatest outlaw,
believes in me much more than I do.
We share a love of poetry,
Having come to Gerard Manley Hopkins from opposite directions,
Her from religious ecstasy, me from the dark sonnets.
In the 1980s we met,
In a shelter for Aboriginal women in Collingwood.
My next memory?
Ursula introducing me to the granddaughter of Ned Kelly’s sweetheart,
An old woman dying in a Melbourne hospital.
I say I’m going next day to the Wombat Ranges
Where the gang declared war on the police.
The old woman, not far from spent,
asks me to say a prayer for her ‘up there’,
I say I will,
Me who doesn’t pray.
When I told the dying woman I was going to the Kelly homestead at Greta,
She said Ellen Kelly, Ned’s mum, had a baby that died,
Was buried beside the creek that ran twenty paces from their door.
Next day, passing where the baby lay,
my senses left me for something stronger, wilder, not clear.
I didn’t go too near the old house.
I wasn’t invited, I wasn’t one of the Kellys,
Not one of their wild warlike lot.
I’m from a passive, observing type.
Beside an old fruit tree
About 50 paces from the ruins of the house.
I bump into my grandfather.
He’s been dead 70 years,
but his eyes are my eyes looking upon this scene.
Thirteen when Ned Kelly was hanged,
The great adventure of his boyhood, Dad said.
Ursula and I talk religion.
She says I’m a Catholic who won’t admit it.
Most of the writing she sends me I don’t get:
It pre-supposes a faith I don’t possess.
Then one day she says, God doesn’t protect you from anything,
But accompanies you all the way
And I think of a jazz pianist,
The way they can accompany you.
I get that sense of God. Sometimes.
Less often when I’m sober.
An Aboriginal man told me stories are stronger
when you hear them in the place they’re from.
In Israel, I went to the synagogue in Nazareth
Where Jesus, having gone mad in the desert
Returned to give the locals a big mouthful.
(Imagine what he’d say in America today).
They took him to a cliff to throw him off
Our Israeli guide said Jesus escaped by flying to another mountain.
I hadn’t read the gospels since I was as a kid,
But I didn’t remember that.
In a Tel Aviv market, I bought a second-hand Bible.
and read the four gospels in the land they’re from.
Truth is, as a kid, I found Jesus a humourless character. Too severe.
Ursula doesn’t like me saying that, but it’s true.
Telling the young man to leave his father’s funeral and follow him.
I would’ve said, ‘I’m going to my father’s funeral, mate,
And I’d like you a lot more if you saw that one my way’,
But, then, he never knew his father, did he?
But I’m still deeply taken by how fearless he was.
And, yes, he reminds me of another fearless young fellow,
The one I grew up hearing songs and stories about.
Ned Kelly’s funeral had bearded types like bikies on the door.
Never seen bearded types on the door of a church before.
No media, they said, faces flat as steel plates bolted down for the occasion.
Ursula arrived with that smile that rises like moonlight on waves,
and said, ‘I know a back way’,
Her forebears, the Holians, were Kelly sympathisers,
Were imprisoned for it.
That’s how the story came to her,
Along with the God she discovered in the bush as a child.
Growing up, in Mansfield, the place at the end of the street was Old Miss Kennedy’s,
Daughter of Sergeant Kennedy shot dead by Ned at Stringybark Creek.
How much of Ned was in the coffin?
His skull, hacked from his head, has been sighted all around Australia.
A Melbourne lawyer in the 1890s boasted of using his scrotum as a tobacco pouch.
How much of Ned is in the coffin?
Enough for this to be a serious affair.
For a man to stop me when, seeking a funeral pamphlet,
I got too near the Kelly descendants.
Who you with? he asks
I point to Ursula.
Well, I suggest you go back and sit with her, he says.
So I do.
Ned’s coffin had been parked mid-way up the aisle,
Like there’s some doubt about whether he’ll be accepted if he got too close to the altar.
From where we sit, Ned’s coffin,
Draped with the green sash he wore beneath his armour at Glenrowan
lay beneath a large wooden cross with no figure attached.
Two fearless young men with different moral codes,
And I’m with this woman who believes in me,
Thinking how brave you have to be,
How brave I’m not.
Martin Flanagan is the author of 16 books and a play. He is currently working on a book about Jane Tewson and her ‘intentionally tiny charity’, Igniting Change.
This poem was published in Eureka St on the 03/07/2018