Pieces of Terry


Terry Monagle, 12 August 1946–10 July 2008

Terry MonagleTerry emailed me from hospital to make sure I knew about the movie Lacombe Lucien because of a story I'm researching. Immediately I remembered Django Reinhardt's French jazz on the soundtrack and the Citroen 'traction avant' — the one with backward opening doors used by the Germans Occupiers in the movie.

When I said this Terry replied that he'd always liked the model although many regarded its engine with disdain. His knowledge of cars surprised me but not his interest in my project despite his own troubles. Now his voice will blend with Django as I read the Resistance.

Terry can't have long. He told me so himself a fortnight ago. It's only two months ago that Graham drove him from another hospital and John filled the table with Italian food, and the group talked about Virgil. Terry refers to the meal as the good old days — when he could eat and drink and read the Aeneid. He was in strife then even though they let him out for dinner with us.

Today Eileen, Terry's wife, let us know he's nearing the end. I bought coffee and joked with the waitress. Terry even then was entering his last hours, and I think of the day my daughter's mother closed silently on death while I quarrelled with the kid and did her hair and hurried her to see her mother.

When a group of friends met for a meal at the end of 2003 I was early and so was Terry. I told him about the book group — finished Ulysses, onto Proust — and how we aimed to read every great text before we died.

When everyone arrived Terry told us he had advanced cancer of the prostate. He was hoping to reach October 2004, ten months later, to see his first grandchild who would be born by then in Baltimore. He was interested in joining the group which had three volumes of Proust to go. It seemed like it would be a close run thing.

Terry's first group gathering was for Sodom and Gomorrah and I read a passage aloud which still has a marker in it: '[F]rom the black storm through which we seem to have passed (but we do not even say we) we emerge lying prostrate, without any thoughts.'

Earlier Proust imagines waking as a caveman and putting himself together little by little and this quote connects to that theme. But wait — how are we lying when we emerge from sleep? Prostate of course; not 'prostrate', no.

When Terry woke at three in the morning in the air-conditioner hiss did he piece himself together little by little or did he wake at once knowing instantly that he was the bloke with cancer racing through him? Outside his hospital window Parkville spread out like a toy town and the easements for the night soil men are leafy laneways. He should be out there in silent air, even with a bucket of shit on his shoulder; that would fucking do.

By the end of 2004 we had finished Proust. Terry's grand-daughter had arrived and he'd been to America and back and we talked about Cervantes. That was the night I convinced myself that the novel is fundamentally humanist and took off on a flight of eloquence. If the Blessed Virgin had appeared to Sancho Panza in a grotto in La Mancha Cervantes would have rendered it with the same corrosive earthiness that he uses for everything.

Terry put up with my atheism with kind forbearance; as though he thought my beliefs entirely natural — for me.

Rosanne, who's my wife, imagines a competition in which the prize is dinner with anyone you chose. Dylan or Peter Cundell I thought — but no I want to talk and eat and drink till all hours around the kitchen table in Umbria with the blokes from the book group and our wives; comparing Homer with Virgil and stacking them both against Proust.

Terry may have other business — at his book launch I realised that for all our intimacy with him the book group was a mere fraction of his world.

As he faces death in his book Claws of Fire he explores a relationship with a bloke like Christ and there is also nature mysticism, often about the country near Taradale where he and Eileen have a place. In one piece Terry walks into the Garden at Gethsemane where Jesus is praying alone. The disciples are asleep on the ground but Terry watches with him and prays and is then sent off to his own Calvary.

Christ said to his disciples — can you not watch with me? But they slept; like the night I slept at home while Susanne struggled for her life in hospital because I had the kids to look after. And now I try not to make the same mistake with Terry. I keep him in mind and remember my father going — his matter-of-fact silent submission to what must happen; and imagine Terry in the midst of that same task.

Years before the book group got started Terry wrote 'what would it be like to see the world without faith?' and I responded:

Once you felt that tearing off your shirt
would be enough to let transcendence in,
but wherever glory ends, it starts from you.
Air touches skin and radiance ensues.

David Bunn has worked for trade unions in Melbourne and Sydney for the last 30 years. He has a couple of unpublished novels in manuscript and is researching the story of a fatal day in Provence in 1944.

Image Terry at Angkor Wat courtesy of John Garratt Publishing

Topic tags: David Bunn, Terry Monagle, pancreatic cancer, claws of fire, proust, cervantes



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Existing comments

Thank you for this reflective story .
Faye Lawrence | 13 July 2011

I remember my time with Terry as an advocate in my fight with the Catholic Education system in 1986,,1989 It was an unfair dismissal because I was an unmarried mother and teaching in a Catholic school. He was a great advocate and a good friend and I am sorry to hear of his passing . My regards to his family -
Abi Thompson | 01 May 2016


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