King of Love

10 March 2016 Ricky French

King of Love

THERE IS SADNESS in the Southwest. It whips across Melaleuca Lagoon and turns your ears red. It flutters past the Deny King bird hide and is lost in the button grass. Love is as rare as an orange-bellied parrot. Beauty is a rowboat tethered to a jetty, waiting for its captain, who will never come home.

The tale of Deny King was my unlikely Valentine’s Day read. His life is told by Christobel Mattingley in the book, King of the Wilderness: The Life of Deny King. It’s a stiff, prim and proper biography – overly polite, desperate to not offend sources. But it’s genuine. Deny would have liked it. Tasmania’s toughest, most self-sufficient bushman was a tender thing. He survived by studying the world around him in fine detail. He mined tin, built anything he liked, sailed solo, made civilisation out of nothing. You could say his first love was birds. Selfless, with no discernable ego, he thought of himself as part of a living organism, just another flawed creature of Earth. But what he really craved was human company. The heart of Deny King’s story is a love story.

He meets Margaret in 1944, during his service in the army. He breaks his leg and ends up in hospital. Margaret is a Red Cross officer. Deny is different to the other army lads. While they play poker, he paints birds. On the day of his discharge he places an object in Margaret’s hands. It’s a self-addressed envelope.

The pair begins a protracted, pen-driven courtship. The bushman wants a wife. He sends her orchids. She uses as them bookmarks, and encourages him to send her more paintings of birds. They make plans to meet again, but Margaret pulls out. Three years later, Deny gets the courage up and surprises her in Brisbane. They go camping on Bribie Island and Deny pops the question. Margaret gives him a solid “maybe” and agrees to meet him again in Hobart. He throws formality to the wind and signs off a letter, “Love Love Love XXX Yours ever Deny”, then hikes to Hobart.

He swims across rivers, climbs untracked mountain ranges, battling leeches, march flies and impenetrable bush. Margaret, meanwhile, attends parties, restaurants and the theatre, catches up with friends, buys some evening blouses and packs for Melaleuca. He walks her to a hill on Melaleuca Inlet and proposes for a second time. She gazes over the lonely creeks and gullies, the silver water and the grey clouds and gives him an even more solid, “’Spect so.”

Margaret then visits London while Deny sleeps with a brick warmed in the fire. His brick, his rowboat, his homemade tin mine, his homemade everything, his nights alone sobbing and reading My Love Must Wait (Ernestine Hill’s novel about the heartaches of Matthew Flinders) – you can’t help but like the guy.

They marry in 1949 and raise two girls. In 1965 Margaret is diagnosed with cancer. In 1967, four days before her 56th birthday, she dies in Deny’s arms.

Deny retreats to his house on the inlet. His father is dead, his wife is dead. The mines department is hassling him. He paints with his daughter Janet. He builds an airstrip and welcomes hordes of bushwalkers, scientists, politicians, friends, journalists. In 1989 he makes his last trip round South West Cape in the yacht he bought with Margaret. A year later Southwest National Park is proclaimed, and Deny King’s kingdom is forever protected. In 1991, at age 81, the man with the massive heart had a massive heart attack and died.

A few months after his death a park ranger went through his garden shed. She found a small, masonite box. It was inscribed, “Margaret, 1967”. Deny had kept his beloved’s remains in a box in the garden shed for 25 years. Deny and Margaret’s ashes were taken on a boat to Bathurst Harbour by their children, Janet and Mary, and scattered with the last remaining orange-bellied parrots, on an out-going tide, in a small corner of our country.

by Ricky French (@frenchricky)

This article first appeared in Ed#506 of The Big Issue.

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