One Evening, I look up into the sky and see something that will change my view of
my world – of the world – forever. You could say this is when I was born in the spirit.
It was the early ’60’s, at a time before man walked in space, let alone on the moon.
Every satellite launch was big news, even in my corner of the globe.
I power my bike along the driveway, through the grainy light of dusk. Evening is a portent of renewal, a time where darkness deepens the familiar face of the world, attuning the lesser senses. The cattle grid thrums and I scribe an arc on the bitumen, rebounding over the grid and down the track again. Tyres bite into earth around the cypress tree as I sprint back up the driveway, my thighs burning, eyes bright as the evening stars that mark the infinite sky.
One of them is moving!
The realisation is shocking. One of the stars is moving.
Braking hard I straddle my bike. I look up with mouth gaping. It is moving. There’s a star high in the southern sky easing slowly across the void. A gulp of excitement catches in my throat as I try to swallow. This is a rare sight, the progress of an orbiting spacecraft, wavering across our sky, with a trail of vapour spewing in its wake.
But no! That’s not right. My hand clasps my own mouth. A vaporous, wavy line. Satellites in space don’t leave those. Ah, perhaps it’s a jet flying very high in the atmosphere. But no! You don’t see the jet then, do you? Not the craft, only its trail of vapour!
‘Geez!’ Fear parches my throat as the jet stream begins to glow and waver.
‘This isn’t right! Spaceships don’t do this! Do they? I’m sure they don’t.’ Then the realisation dawns. Maybe I’m witnessing aliens instead.
‘Gotta get dad!’
Back on my bike, I hurtle down the driveway to the front of the house, bark and twigs flying as I speed on. Crossing the cattle grid I rip to a stop below the front steps, and leave the bike wheel jack-knifed and spinning. Flinging the fly screen wide open, I pound down the hallway to the sitting room, confronting the startled faces of my parents. Dad is already out of his chair.
‘There’s a thing in the sky,’ I rasp. ‘Like a star but it’s moving, swaying.’
The look on my face shocks him and he hurries passed me.
I follow, grabbing my bike, and race to where he stands, midway up the house paddock.
‘There,’ I point accusingly at the brilliant thing. He’s seen it and stands as awestruck as me. We just gape and watch. I hear mum shuffle to the gateway, briefly. She can’t see anything through trees and doesn’t come further.
‘Is it a spaceship, dad? D’you reckon?’
He doesn’t answer right away and that frightens me.
‘It’s an aurora,’ he declares finally, his face beaming. ‘Lord, I haven’t seen one of these in years!’
‘It’s a what?’
‘An aurora, dear. Aurora Australis. Watch,’ he urges. ‘See how that cloud is spreading? Look, it’s changing colour. Watch! You may never see one like this again!’ The awe and intensity of his voice is compelling.
The cloud begins to smudge, rising like fine dust, and violet, now, with folds of translucent mauve and radiant deep blue. Its star continues a scratchy line through the night sky, fading near the horizon. Above us the cloud grows in indigo brilliance, intense, and emitting some kind of energy I can feel but not explain. We watch entranced, the evening still about us, the air crisp. Crickets are silent, nothing else but the sound of blood pumping in my ears. And yet I can hear something. Or do I feel it? A high-pitched hiss like the static on shortwave radio, coming from the aurora. What stretches above me now is something I’ve never heard of or imagined possible and I am utterly humbled by its beauty and scale.
Now the aurora takes on brilliance beyond that of any stars. Its colour deepens in waves and it moves, ever so slightly, like the bottom of a long velvet curtain caught in a celestial breeze. The spectacle fills a good quarter of the sky, suspended right over the nearby township, bathing everything in an eerie dusting of lavender. I want to capture the moment in some way, but I remain captivated, no longer aware of my legs numbing in the cold, my body swaying, or the pounding of my heart. I’m so utterly spellbound, I can barely breathe. Were I standing in the presence of the most revered entity in the world, or as a witness to the most important event in history, I would still have turned to watch this, so powerful is its effect. This is an act of God, something I can understand. It is irrefutable, beyond spectacular, or astronomical. This beauty assaults all my senses, rendering all imaginings obsolete. Time and space dissolve and my heart aches.
Gradually the colours begin to lose their brilliance and the indigo deepens to violet. It has blazed across the sky for half an hour or so, and its fading brings such disappointment. I’m filled with a sense of longing, an aching for it to stay, holding it with each breath, powerless, helpless, as it slowly fades.
‘Mmm.’ Dad breaks the silence. He sounds weary, sharing my confusion of wonder and disappointment. His face is tired and sad.
‘Oh, dad. It’s going.’ I sigh.
Barely a smudge in the night sky, the aurora has ceased to sing. Time returns like gravity to a landed swimmer and I feel the chill air on my legs. Night has fallen so suddenly. Only moments before the first stars seemed pale and uncertain.
‘Well. I will never forget this moment, that’s for sure, dad.’ The experience leaves me shaken and bewildered. So many questions needing answers and feelings, explanation. I thought I knew so much about my world and now this. No one has ever mentioned that things like this really happen.
‘What makes the colour, dad? And what was that starry thing that started it?’
He tilts his head, unsure. ‘I think it all begins when dust in our atmosphere starts burning. I’ve got an astronomy book inside. We’ll find out more from there. But I’ve never seen one like this before.’
‘You’ve seen others?’
‘Yes, one or two. But pale and brief compared to this.’
We wait a little longer, two figures standing in the dimness, with the manna gum towering over us.
‘Well, I think I’ll go in now,’ says dad, finally. ‘It’s getting cold. There’ll be another frost by morning.’
‘Okay. I’ll be in soon.’
I listen to his slippered footsteps over leaves and bark as he walks stiffly back to the house. My eyes are still glued to the sky, to what I remember, willing it back. I stomp my feet to bring back circulation. With one last hopeful glance I pick up my bicycle and ride a couple of circuits just to get warm, but all the while peering skyward. Perhaps another will start. If one, why not another? I bet I’ll be looking skyward every time I come outside from eve till dawn, for the rest of my life. And every time I see those beautiful colours I’ll think of this aurora Australis. And how such beauty is so fleeting.
Hope of a reprise fades. I now begin to understand that such an event can happen at any time, whether I’m there or not. Even behind storm clouds, just over the horizon or when I lie sleeping. Coasting along the path I set my bike against the fence. There’s an awful lot up there I need to know.I head inside with a dozen questions spawning dozens more. Something new has awakened within me.
One of the greatest gifts I received in life came in the form of my adoptive father. He was a shy man, well read – well educated for that matter – and while he was unable to relate to me as a toddler, once my curiosity appeared, a whole new dimension grew in our relationship. While he passed away many years ago, his legacy: the love of literature, research writing, music and a passion for the world around me remains, unabated. Unfortunately I do not have a photo of him, but imagine a tall, fifty year old, lean, sun-tanned farmer, wearing bib overalls, a toweling hat and boots and you would have him in mind. And to have a dad with the name Merlin, was pretty cool.
Dad’s library fits snugly into the corner of the sitting room, between the chimney and the wall. It begins on the bench top, above cupboards lined with smooth green leather and covered with neat piles of magazines: Walkabout, UNESCO Courier, a volumes about BHP, the Antarctica, and classical art. But these fail to obscure the piles of yellow-spined National Geographics, now within easy reach. I haven’t been inclined to explore the shelves with any seriousness. In fact they’ve remained untouched but for occasional dusting. The contents seem unremarkable to me. Apart from a few leather bound titles and classics I assume the rest are reference books, and I’ve rarely seen dad delve into them. He just doesn’t have the time or inclination anymore, preferring the radio or recordings, and reading the paper, at least until television arrived.
Tonight, in stockinged feet I climb from dad’s armchair to the bench top. My fingers ruffled across the spines urgently, searching for anything on Astronomy.
‘It has a navy blue dust jacket and the title is in white writing,’ dad recalls, craning his neck and squinting to see. ‘I think it may be on a lower shelf, though.’
‘What’s she looking for,’ mum asks.
‘That book on astronomy. She wants to know more about the aurora we saw.’
I grunt. ‘Astronomy starts with ‘A’, dad, so why isn’t it on the top shelf?’ An impudent question but I’m impatient.
‘Because it’s my library, dear.’
‘Found it!’ I declare, slipping the book from its place and read the subtitle, ‘A Guide to the Southern Hemisphere.’ Its cover offers an illustration of the starry heavens and is stiff to open. The pages are cream-coloured with age and have a musty smell. They are unevenly bound and cut. Most of all, the volume is disappointingly thin. I had imagined the Aurora to be a vast subject.
‘Here,’ dad calls, reaching for the book. I turn, handing it to him as I sit down on the bench, looking over his elbow. I wait. His eyes scan the index and I watch his face closely for any sign of discovery.
‘There!’ He exclaims, turning to the page and reading something about solar storms and magnetic fields, stuff I’ve never heard of before. Then he hands me the book. There’s a black and white photo of an aurora, a paltry attempt to replicate what we’ve witnessed. I read through the text for any additional information he may have missed. There were no diagrams to provide a better understanding of the phenomenon.
‘There’s a good photo of an aurora Australis in that ANARE book,’ mum suggests.
‘What ANARE book?’
‘The book about Antarctica, there on the bench behind you.’
It’s a large, at the bottom of a weighty pile. I move magazines to get to it. The dust jacket has stuck to the bench top and made a ‘schtuck’ noise as I lift it up. Its glossy cover features a dramatic picture of a singular blue-white iceberg. I must have looked at it once before because the pictures seem familiar and, glancing though it now, it seems promising. I remain on the bench, resting the weighty volume on my lap, turning glossy pages one by one as I rediscover the icy wastes south of Australia. I remember the picture of the penguins and the one with a bearded man, his face covered in icicles but, inexplicably, I can’t recall the next photo, a full-page image of an aurora Australis. It’s graininess, a greeny-yellow cloud, is disappointing, nothing like the crisp indigo velvet hanging from our night sky.
Text on the following page offers more. I slide off the bench and curl up in my armchair, legs crossed to support the book as I read patiently.
‘It says they are a common occurrence in the southern wastes, visible as far north as the southern coast of Australia, dad,’ I read aloud. ‘Although they also occur in daytime they are only really visible at night. They also occur over the Arctic Circle where they are known as aurora borealis.’
I sat back and considered this awhile. Across the room mum knitted, quite unmoved by the events of the evening. It’s getting late and my curiosity is sated for now. While I’ve learned that the aurora is uncommon, it’s still hard to accept such a brilliant, dramatic spectacle. Surely someone else must have seen it, too. Perhaps one of my school friends. I want to talk to someone who knows more about them. Perhaps my teacher might have seen it would be able to explain it better. I show the picture to mum. It’s a solemn moment, as if I’m revealing a secret part of myself, or like looking at the face of god, even if it isn’t the same face I’d seen earlier.
‘This isn’t like the one we saw, mum,’ I explain. ‘Is it dad?’
‘No,’ he agrees. ‘Ours was indigo and like the bottom of a curtain. That looks nothing like it, really.’
‘I should’ve come out,’ mum sighs. ‘I couldn’t see anything but stars from the gate.’ She resumed knitting. ‘I’ve never seen an aurora.’
‘There’ll be more,’ dad assures her. ‘They come in cycles. It’s unusual for one to be so high up in our sky, though. Others I’ve seen are low-set, and most occur in the morning around five or six o’clock.’
I return the book to its place and fish out The Overloaded Ark again, flipping through its pages.
‘May I borrow this one, dad?’
‘Of course.’ He looks a little surprised. ‘Where’d you hear of it?
‘Our fourth grade teacher Mr Wellman, used to read it to us each afternoon, just before the last bell. We got through the whole book. I’d like to read it again.’
‘You’ll enjoy it,’ he assures me. ‘He’s a good bloke, Durrell. If you like that there’ll be other books up there you’ll enjoy, too.’ He grins, pleased to have a visitor to his library.
Dad is right. The book gives me an appetite for more. Some are well illustrated or have intriguing covers and I pull them down to investigate further. Several contain collections of papers written by famous scientists, philosophers and historians. They seem quite readable and I take them to my room. I’m not an adventurous reader and need prompting to get started. Often curiosity is enough, or something mentioned on TV or at school. After reading some of Lawson’s stories, I long for more about my own country. There are few of these dad’s collections but none that seem to tantalise me.
I think this is the day I truly found my voice as a writer.
One Sunday afternoon I happen upon dad dozing in his chair after dinner. Climbing onto the bench I search the shelves again. I didn’t intend to waken him but, having done so, it pays off.
‘There are plenty of bush ballads about Australia,’ he says, limbering himself stiffly to search the shelves. ‘There,’ he points. ‘That one with the green cover.’
I handed it to him after a brief look, and climbed down to perch at his side. He flips through the stained, musty pages, looking for something. ‘This was awarded to me as a Sunday school prize when I was a boy,’ he reveals, showing me a certificate pasted on the flyleaf. ‘And there’s some good stuff in here.’ Turning more pages he comes to familiar territory and stops, backtracking over one or two, and smiling as if recognising an old friend.
‘It’s called Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, and it’s written by Banjo Paterson.’ He takes a breath, holding it briefly as he studies the page. Then he begins a most extraordinary reading. As the adventures of Mulga Bill unwind both dad and I roar with laughter. He even has to pause in order to recover his breath and composure before he can continue.
Having enjoyed it so much, he riffles through the pages again, finding another. Upon the first phrase I recognised it.
‘That’s The Man From Snowy River! I exclaim. Dad nods, smiling as he reads. I lean back against the chair, my eyes closed, listening to the rhythm of words galloping with the wild horses, the bragging of the horsemen and the excitement of the chase.
Dad enjoys reading and asks if I’d like to fetch him another volume, this time a collection of poets. From it here he reads some Robbie Burns with such a heavy brogue I’m astonished.
When he’s finished the verse I ask. ‘Where on earth did you learn to talk like that?’
‘Oh, one of my uncles used to recite these after dinner. It’s a lot easier from memory than trying to read from the page. Look!’ He points to the verses and I can see what he means. Some of the words were unrecognisable.
‘And if you like Lawson, see if you like this one.’ Dad begins another, missing the title and straight into the first verse, his voice softer, lilting, the words rolling like the hills and plains it describes. I have never heard it before yet the images and pull of the words are undeniable.
‘What’s it called, dad?’ I ask when he’s finished.
‘My Country,’ he replies, handing me the book.
While I read it through again, he gets up and reaches for another couple of books, one a more recent publication with a colourful jacket, and the other much older, with gilt edged pages. He sits back down again, legs crossed, and props his elbows on the chair arms.
‘You’ll like some of these,’ he promises. Flicking through the pages of the first, there are numerous illustrations. The book is filled with short stories. ‘These are written by Henry Lawson. Some of them are yarns, others quite dramatic.’ Almost reluctantly he hands it over. ‘And this one, I’m not so sure. He’s a fine poet. There are some real gems in here.’ Finding one he began to read. Again the rhythm was catchy, and the words, like My Country, spoke of the love of two lands. Dad obviously knows it well as he reads it faultlessly, only glancing at the page.
‘That’s lovely, dad. The way the words ripple and fall is so beautiful. I’ll never be able to write like that.’
‘Then enjoy reading it,’ he replies, showing me the poem. It’s called A Dedication. I reach for it, turn to the cover. Gordon’s Poems. Opening the book, I search for the title page. But, first I discover the flyleaf. It is inscribed in pen and ink. ‘Wishing Bessie many Happy Birthdays with best wishes from Jack. 14.7.99′
‘Who are Jack and Bessie, then?’
‘My mum and dad.’
‘You mean grandad gave this to your mum?’
‘Yes. In 1899.’
I’m astonished. ‘But grandad’s name is John. John Sanders Clarke. You told me. His initials are monogrammed on his handkerchiefs.’
‘Well, everyone calls him Jack.’
‘Elizabeth. You were named after her.’
I’m silenced by wonder. Perhaps I have more beginnings than I realise. I turn to the title page, Poems by Adam Lindsay Gordon. There’s an engraving of the poet on the facing page. This is such a beautiful book, dad.’
‘And it’s yours to keep and treasure. And that one,’ he adds, placing the other slim volume on my lap.
I gather the books to me and offer dad a hug. Not only has he shared some wonderful books but he’s understood how much these moments and words have meant to me.
After realising the bounty of those shelves I spend many hours perusing their contents. And when they’re finally exhausted, I sit on the floor behind mum’s chair and begin another phase of discovery. First there are more volumes of Courier magazines. They offer a more worldly view of humanity than National Geographics, portraying the sufferings and simplicity of the other half of the world, one I rarely glimpsed on the TV news and in documentaries. One book leaves me totally baffled. I take it to mum, asking her to explain it better. It’s a small volume of reproduced paintings by various artists, each work accompanied by a short biography.
‘These artists are disabled people, dear,’ mum explains. ‘Some of them have suffered from diseases like polio and cannot use their hands and cannot walk. So they have learned to paint holding brushes in their mouths. Others can’t use their hands, and draw and paint with their toes instead. Yet the work is so fine, isn’t it?’
The book fascinates me and I return to it often, realising how much a person can do even after so much difficulty in their lives. Most of the artists are European but their paintings cover a myriad of subjects and styles.
Another of mum’s treasures is an intriguing book with the title Other People’s Children. It contains few words after a brief introduction. There follow dozens of full-page, black and white photographs of children from all around the world. Unhindered by captions I’m forced to gather all I can from the children’s expressions, the way they dress and from the background, often finding evidence of great poverty and hardship, the harshness of snow or desert. I visit this book frequently, the faces always fascinating, their stories mysterious and tantalising.
A book about Mahatma Gandhi called All Men Are Brothers is a recent addition to mum’s shelves. It’s a biography about Gandhi, mostly told in his own words, quotations taken from his speeches and writings. The man and his story bind a spell around him. He speaks of peace in a time of great turmoil in the world and I recognise, for the first time, a true politician advocating a revolutionary concept of non-violent non-co-operation. His charisma leaps from the pages, opening a open door to his people and their struggle leaving me keen to read anything about him and the struggle between Hindus and Muslims after the British colonials depart.
While I continue studying the skies, I become equally enamoured with geology, nourished by my venturing to Keilembete and Mount Noorat and Auntie Aileen’s expeditions to the coast. And the aurora has left me in no doubt that the mysteries I’ve read about are not confined to the pages of books, or to the television. They are present in my own world, in every corner of the farm, simply awaiting my discovery, and dad helps unveil many of these.
FALLING INTO THE STARS
Each evening we watch the weather forecast at the end of the news, trying to outdo each other’s explanations as to why the sunrise was red, or how a perfectly cool, clear spring morning lurches into an afternoon of hot, blustery north winds. I learn how to read the barometer, to understand the significance of air pressure and humidity. And, pouring over weather maps in the newspaper, he explains the source of south westerly storms, frosts and fog.
After dinner, one warm summer evening, I climb up the cypress hedge and roll into my hammock. Brushing away leaves and stray cobwebs I gaze heavenward at the vastness of the Milky Way. It’s a clear night, the stars crisp, flashing pink and blue through the incomprehensibility of space. First I mark out familiar constellations and, from the Southern Cross locate magnetic south. I’ve learned recently that the poles are incidental, fickle, and capable of change. I noticed variations in planetary positions, how the waxing moon is higher in the sky as it thins, setting beyond the west, and when it will rise, full and ripe in the northeast, over the shoulder of Mount Noorat.
As I lie there, staring into the night sky, an odd sensation overcomes over me, a wave of giddiness. It passes and I return my attention to the sky. Some of the paler stars were millions of light years away, while other brighter ones seem almost neighbours, planets even, sharing our star. The giddiness returns. This time I don’t look away, but allow the sensation y to wash over me. I know I can’t fall. I checked the hammock quite recently and the tree is sound. While struggling with the unnerving lurch in my stomach I force my eyes to focus on the stars. Soon the vertigo eases and I realise that my brain has accepted what my eyes have seen: that I stand, as if at a huge window or a viewing platform in space. Floating there, the sense of motion is the gentle breeze swaying my hammock, but I am no longer conscious of my own physicality, floating among the stars in three dimensions.
Clambering back down to earth, I am still shaken from the ethereal experience, and find it difficult to walk. But after that lesson I continue to view the sky that way and it remains exhilarating, whether lying adrift on the lawn, or draped in the less comfortable arms of the deckchair. The sky is never just a canopy of stars, again. It is an infinite ocean.
I love mystery, secrets and codes. So I decided to make some…..
Over the years I’ve collected a steady trickle of bits and pieces that are intriguing or special. Amongst these items is an old fob watch and some coins I’ve uncovered during summer fossicks and winter loft explorations. I’ve also unearthed an old key on a brass ring, the kind used to open big old locks like I’d seen on castle doors. There are brass cogs and springs, the innards of wind up toys. I’ve removed the workings from my old music box. It began out of curiosity. I just wanted to see how it worked. After pulling it apart the novelty of cogs, clicks and metallic whirs was far more interesting than the tiresome melody it picked out with such mechanical precision.
There are quirky items, too, things I just can’t bear to throw away. Not clutter exactly, they evoke sharp memories and feelings, smells and sounds that have made life a richer experience. Among these is a collection of olivine crystals, the most personal of my treasures. To others these stones seem rather ordinary and lackluster but, for me they are magical. I can’t really explain why. The most highly valued pieces are large single crystals extracted from whole lumps that I’ve crushed. While they resemble emeralds, I know they’ve no value, but they are beautiful things to behold. And I’ve spent hours under baking sun, both in our drive way and, more recently at the Mount Noorat quarry, searching for the uniquely shaped volcanic bombs in which such crystals form.
Together with these gems are several small rubies, numerous garnets and agates that I’ve found in coarse beach sands at Moonlight Heads. There, heavy seas pounded the rocks and cliff-faces, and currents churn the sea floor and dumping stones on the narrow shore. Beyond the beach splintered wood and rusted iron lie melded into the reef, skeletons of several sailing ships that foundered along the coast.
Guided by my aunt’s geological enthusiasm, I’ve learned much about the formation of the region: how timbered grasslands evolved, pocked with volcanic cones and sudden lakes, and she’s convinced me that the whole region was once a seabed.
My collection boasts Australites, found after hours of fossicking, with my aunt, along coastal cliffs that tower over the spume and pounding of the great southern ocean. After witnessing the aurora, these finds are very special. Dad says they were shooting stars. Imagine it. Imagine holding real shooting star in your hand. I marvel at the smooth, deceptively heavy brown stones bared by briny gales and sleet and their molten shapes feed my imagination.
I keep my treasure hidden in an old tin, probably of pharmaceutical origin, secreted on an overhanging ledge inside my bedroom chimney. After recent stories about buried treasure, pirates, maps and stranded sailors, the idea of hiding my own treasure with an indecipherable map is intoxicating. As I play the archery game, I search for special features marking a perfect spot to bury my treasure safely, with the added satisfaction of being able to find it again in years to come. I consider the old gum, the big cypress, but no. Too hard to dig near a tree, but the ruins of the pigsty are one possibility but no one feature leaps out at me. Disappointing really. Surely any site lined up with a couple of features and marked with an X, would be really easy to locate. Some sort of land form, a deformed tree. The dwarf pine, perhaps. I go for another long and serious reconnoiter round the farm. After all, burying a treasure isn’t something you just casually plan from your bedroom. Pirates don’t do that sort of thing. Grabbing bow and arrows I set out, after lunch, to find a special spot, picking up the same route as my archery game. From the orchard fence I cross the paddock, passing the mushroom patch. After exploring the rabbit paddock the remaining fields seem featureless for treasure mapping, except for the pigsty and, out of respect I decide not to add more desecration.
Perched on the railing above the horse paddock trough, I shield my eyes against afternoon glare. It’s not a field I’ve considered other than for a tree house. Hopping down I make my way passed the chook house to the old pine tree. It doesn’t welcome climbing and offers only craggy bark and a few bulging roots beneath leaf litter. Nearby, the trunk of a single gum stands has been trimmed of lower branches and its few limbs survive drastic surgery after half the tree snapped in half during a gale. I attempt to climb once, literally finding myself out on a limb, hanging by my sweaty hands until I found the courage and logic to let go. I learned that a fall should be measured from the feet down and smile now, stretching my shoulders in memory of the stiffness that had lingered for weeks. The resulting frozen shoulder excused me from playing basketball for several weeks.
Looking across the paddock towards the driveway I experience the feeling of a truth about to be revealed. My feet lead me to the foot of the Moreton Bay fig tree. Occasionally I’ve played here, once collecting a tin of latex in an aborted attempt to manufacture rubber, ruining one of mum’s saucepans during the process. The branches invite me today, an easy climb on smooth, pale bark. Dad has constructed a guardrail around the trunk to keep the horses from chewing at the bark. I perch on it now, looking around the paddock. While here feels right somehow, no distinguishing spot screams, ‘dig here!’ Disappointed, I climb down again and walk up to the low set cypress near the road. My plans for a tree house have folded into procrastination.
Turning back, it dawns on me. Secret places don’t announce themselves. They have a commonality about them requires ingenious calculation, so many paces south, marked by the shadow of the noonday sun. Something like that. Returning to the fig tree, I climb onto the guardrail and step into the branches. Swinging across, I rest in the cradle of a fork, studying the branches. There’s a deep scar in the bark, encircled by a wrinkled ridge where the bark has regrown, leaving only a slight hollow. Part of the scar forms a deep fissure and I peep through it. There, perfectly framed, is a strip of meadow, the lean gumtree in the background and prominent, buttress roots nearby. Excited, I hop down and walk along the imaginary line to the gum, then, turning back, carefully pace the distance between the two trees: eighty-eight steps. Striding back forty-four paces I mark the ground with the heel of my boot before returning to the fig tree. Another forty-four paces. Halfway, that’s perfect! Breathless with excitement I hop back up into the fig tree and line up the strip again. I can just make out the mark I’ve made. All I have to do now is bury my treasure and make The Map: forty-four paces and an X to mark the spot.
For the remainder of the afternoon I busy myself at my desk, with paper, pen, ink, and my chemistry set. Beside me sits a cold cup of black tea, with cut lemon in the saucer, and a paint brush. With the drawing finished, I lean, cross-legged, into the fire place, burning the map edge, making it look old, worn and stained. I’ve labelled it in my secret code, giving the document an exotic appearance, exactly how a treasure map should appear. The most important instructions are written in invisible ink. After rolling it up, I place it beside my treasure box, up in the chimney. Tomorrow, with my chores done after Sunday dinner, when dad reads the paper and mum snoozes, I’ll bury the treasure.
The dishes are done and I change into slacks and shirt, checking mum and dad are occupied. Hoisting down my treasure box and map, I head for my cubby house, spreading the contents of the box out on the floor. Lining the tin with aluminium foil I’ve filched from the kitchen, I wrap the watch and workings of the music box in old handkerchiefs. I make similar bundles of my gemstones and coins, folding the bundles in brown paper bags before repacking each treasure in the tin. With a foil seal I close the lid. For now the map is pushed down behind loose wall boards. Tuck the tin under my arm, I borrow mum’s garden spade and head for the horse paddock.
Locating the spot is easy and I cut a large square in the turf, gently lifting it aside, then begin digging in the moist black soil. With the hole two feet deep, it occurs to me that my tin will rust if I bury it straight in the ground. Scrounging amongst a pile of discarded rags in the workshop I discover an old sou’ wester made of oil skin. Although shredded down one side it’s ideal and I cut out the back panel with dad’s shears.
Back at the digging with the tin wrapped securely, I place it at the bottom of the hole. Tamping down the turf square with my boot, I wonder how long it will remain there before I have the unbearable urge to dig it up again. The only sign of my secret is a smudge of dirt and a few bruised blades of grass. Lying the spade across the square, I run to the fig tree and climb up into the branches. Through the sight hole I locate the gum tree and the spade in the foreground. I smile broadly with relief and satisfaction. I am the new member of a secret society shared by pirates and smugglers.
Returning to the cubby, I roll the map and wrap it in foil. It will be safer in the chimney if I can find something to secure it in. Back in the workshop I begin my searching. There are glass jars with metals lids, but they might shatter; in tins the map might get too hot and singe. Then I find the solution. Beneath the bench on a lower are sheets of lead. I find one free of holes and return to the cubby. Unwrapping the map, I fold it in half, creasing it carefully, and then in half again. Now it’s the size of a small envelope. Folding it twice more I reduce it to the size of a matchbox. With the creases well pressed I rewrap it in foil and then fold the lead around it, pressing it into shape with my fists. The map is perfectly enclosed, resembling a mysterious package. With my geometry compass I engrave on the side, ‘If You Love Life Do Not Open!’ After placing the package in the chimney, I feel very satisfied. It may get damp but no flames will reach it tucked away back there.
The hardest part about having a treasure is done. There is no use digging it up for a while, as that would defeat the purpose. I decide to leave it for a few years at least, until the details of it have faded from memory and the itch to dig it up is well and truly gone. Just to know I have a treasure suffices for now.
Note: about eight years later the farm was sold, while I was away at boarding school, and my treasure and map, the tree house and my beloved hammock were lost within one strike of a hammer. But the memories of these years remain as fresh today as the breeze of the Pacific Ocean.