THE
HAMMOCK (A chapter from my autobiographical novel called The
Archer’s Game, copyright to me since 2008) Out of respect for my
family I have changed some names and places in this account.
THE HAMMOCK The excitement of another Christmas passes, leaving a
litter of half-read storybooks and toys on my bedroom floor. My
brother is commissioning his latest meccano project: a model hay
baler that produces hay from freshly mown lawn clippings. I range
from the house, seeking new adventures. My first stop is the
cypress hedge, where I worm my way up through a hole in the leafy
floor. Clambering along the aerial walkway, I head towards the
orchard end. On a whim, I stop at the second last tree and climb
its sturdy trunk. As I near the top, my weight causes the greenwood
to bend alarmingly and I must grab a neighbouring branch to break
my fall. I swing impulsively across the void and slam into the last
tree, hanging for a moment, stunned at my recklessness. Grateful
for a safe footing, I peer down at the thicket of branches.
Well, I wouldn’t have fallen far. I climb to
the top, this time anticipating the treetop’s weakness, and grasp a
neighbouring branch. Letting go, I swing back to the original tree,
exhilarated by my impersonation of Tarzan. From my perch, I peer
out over the orchard and fields. In the distance, the town shimmers
in a haze of smoke and heat. As I rest against the trunk, unsure of
what to do next, a sudden, surging westerly tosses the hedge from
side to side. I cling to the truck amidst the straining branches.
Finally, the air falls still, leaving the trees rocking gently. It
would be lovely to experience that again without having to cling on
for my life. A web, perhaps, or a net. A hammock linking the two
trees together, suspending me in the middle. I study the distance
between the trunk and branches. Should be possible. ‘Oroo. Debbie.’
Mum’s operatic call carries from the house. Further plans must
wait. ‘Yee-harr,’ I call, aware she hasn’t a clue where I am. ‘Tend
to the chooks, would you dear? I don’t know where your brother is.’
‘Righto.’ It’s fun being invisible. The next day continues a warm,
uncluttered week. After chores and morning tea, I return to the
hedge with a bundle of used hay-bale twine stuffed up my shirt.
Worming through the hole in the floor, I clamber to the treetop,
curling one leg around the truck for support. With the twine draped
over nearby branches, I begin to untangle and join the lengths
together. I fetch more, finishing my work on the ground. I’ve
completed three lengths, plaited together, forming a long, sturdy
rope. I return to the treetops, and tie one end securely around the
greenwood trunk of the second tree before tossing the remainder
across to the last tree. I swing after it, and secure it there, to
the trunk, leaving enough slackness between for the hammock. After
throwing the remainder back, I follow, tying it off above the
initial knot. With lunch over, I make more rope, and knot a series
of warp lengths along the hammock frame, and then weave another,
spidering back and forth, creating a web between the two trees. Mum
calls me in before it’s finished. I return after dinner, completing
the final knots and checking my work. It looks safe and inviting. I
roll in, cautiously gripping the plaited sides, ready to grab a
branch should I fall. The feeling is delicious and I lie back, tree
branches framing either side of a panoramic view of the sky. I
relax more, peering across to the dusky lights of the distant town,
and follow the horizon to our house, the orchard and dairy. Beyond
dry paddocks and over the hedgerows, a mountain basks in the soft
lavender bloom of evening. The hammock is a bit uncomfortable, with
knots digging in, the twine sagging here, tight there. It needs
adjusting. I will do that tomorrow in better light. For now, weary
and elated, the success of my task is enough. As evening deepens, I
surrender to the infinite sky, watching familiar stars dust the
canopy. A breeze sets the trees sighing again, with wafts of tangy
resin.

*** As fate would have it,
a westerly change sweeps through overnight and I gaze forlornly at
the grey, tumbling sky. Blustery winds set the eaves moaning and
the towering manna gum outside my window hisses, tossing furiously.
A storm arrives, with snarling thunder, pelting the roof with balls
of ice. I wait it out in my room, restless and disappointed,
rubbing at the sap stains on my hands. The floor-dusting mop lies
at my feet, barely used. Just the thought of cleaning adds
heaviness to the day. I poke the mop beneath my spare bed,
collecting dust balls and a couple of downy feathers. One final
sweep draws a slipper into view, unmatched all summer. I toss it
next to its pair. A sudden squall sends draughts down the chimney,
and a chunk of soot tumbles out onto the hearth. While I’m using
the bathroom, Chris wires the brass doorhandle to an electric
transformer belonging to his new train set. He waits
patiently for me to emerge. I shriek with fright and pain. ‘You
bugger, I scream and, after I realise what he’s done, give him a
good tongue lashing. Then I dob him in. Mum handballs him to dad.
I’ve had enough confinement. Rain or not, I slip outside. Sunday is
fine. After church and dinner, I rush through the dishes, keen to
get back to my hammock. A gentle south easterly has left the ropes
barely damp. They creak under my weight. The hammock has ample
length. My only concern is its tendency to roll. Collecting more
twine, I tie anchor lines to sturdy branches and make a plaited
belt, tying it over me for added security. With this done, I lie
back and soak up the satisfaction. Who would have thought of a
hammock in the treetops? Sunlit warmth melts through my clothes. A
breeze hushes in, swaying me back and forth and I doze, savouring
the pure wonder of what I’ve done. I spend most of these holidays
in the treetops, much to dad’s amusement and mum’s nagging. ‘Young
girls shouldn’t spend so much time alone, and in dangerous places,’
she harps. ‘It’s not natural.’ Chris comes up for visit but prefers
his own engineering and mischief. One afternoon, and inexplicably,
he sets fire to the hedge. He reckons he wanted to see if he could
put the flames out with dad’s knapsack. Luckily, he does, but not
before dad finds out, dashing to his aid. Sometimes my brother goes
beyond puzzling, and his foolishness makes me angry. At night, my
hammock presents other wonders. The stars seem much closer and I
feel the sky rolling me into its belly. Constellations are already
familiar now, and phases of the moon and planets more predictable.
Even the scratched tails of shooting stars seem common. Some
afternoons I watch banks of crisp, white clouds tumble to form
canyons, changing shapes in ways that stretch my imagination. One
autumn afternoon I witness a swarm of spider webs drifting along in
warm currents of air, and later the cotton-yarn vapour trail of a
jet-plane fluffing to cotton wool, dispersing like steam. Flocks of
migrating birds sweep across the sky. Sometimes I hear them honking
in the stillness. Their changing formations and the beat of their
wings makes a symphony of their flight. I hear them at night, too,
even spotting individual birds silhouetted against the stars. With
the onset of winter days, fingers of cold wind buffet and shake my
enthusiasm and I leave my home in the sky for more sheltered spots
in the workshop, lofts and haysheds. And as I ride the circuit, I
gaze up to the hedge wistfully, remembering the warm days there. I
know that when I return next summer, it will feel different –
things always do. * * * There is another side to my mum, things she
does that are not loving at all. She can be spiteful and
manipulative; causing me to withdraw, confused, sad and lonely.
Though only a child, I recognise grown up games. They are hard to
ignore, worse than Chris’s teasing. Sometimes I find myself
wondering why she adopted us at all. After her angry outbursts, and
once we’ve calmed down again, she makes a point of reassuring us of
her love, and yet I do doubt her. She arcs easily, especially with
dad. He says it’s like walking on egg shells, so easy is it to
displease her. There is a point where she turns her back on us, and
vanishes into a deep, dark place, behind a wall of silence. It can
happen so fast I must back track, in order to understand what has
gone wrong. First there is a verbal slap, administered immediately,
and I know by her voice and the set of her red mouth, the scale of
her displeasure. Then I must wait, allowing the sting of the
incident to cool to a bearable smart. I manage my quiet tears,
always somewhere outside, away from the house, where time and space
allow me to sit and ponder. Even a careless remark is fuel. She can
detect the tiniest flicker of contempt beneath the shawl of my love
for her. A task left undone, Chris and I bickering: inevitable
during holidays and weekends when we wind each other up. Then there
is always tension with dad, and this overflows, exposing us to the
sharp edge of her irritation, while dad skulks off to busy himself
somewhere on the farm. This morning an argument erupts between us
in the sandpit. Chris builds a highway under a railway line; much
like those we’ve seen on trips to Melbourne. I pour water from my
bucket into a hollow, making a lake for my new bark boat. The
sandpit provides plenty of room our constructions, grand as they
are, but with Chris’s work taking precedence over mine in size and
location. I bump his sandy bridge, causing a major landslide.
Tempers flare. He serves me an exasperated punch. Hurt, I run
screeching towards the back veranda, yelling abuse over my
shoulder. Mum has been watching us from the laundry window. She
turns towards the backdoor just as Chris overtakes my shrill cries
with his bellowing. He pushes passed me into the house, ready to
defend himself. But mum is at the end of her tether and tired of
our constant fighting. Still holding the iron, she loses her
patience, waving it toward us as she explodes. ‘Get out! Get out
both of you! I’m sick of you both!’ We gape, frozen in mid stride.
‘I’m sick and tired of you both! You can’t play together for five
minutes without an upset! I’m sick of it! Get out!’ We’re
speechless at her vehemency, at her ugly, contorted face. Her mouth
stretches around each word, her eyes inflamed, filling with tears.
Neither of us knows what to do. This is our home. Where do we go?
‘Get out!’ she cries hoarsely, threatening us with the iron. ‘Go
away and leave me in peace!’ and she slams the iron down hard on
the table. I flee out the back door, dashing through the gate and
into the yard, emitting a shaky wail as I seek somewhere passed the
anger and fear. Chris is stunned. He pauses at the steps in shock.
A terrible hurt seeps into him. He waits, hoping mum doesn’t really
mean what she’s said, that she’s just very angry and will come and
reassure him. However, no one comes and a dreadful sickness settles
in. Eventually he drifts back to the sandpit and sits with his eyes
lowered, prodding the ground with a stick. An apology is useless
now: a game must be played. He sets to repairing the damaged wall.
I steady my pace, beyond the sheds now, enveloped in the safety of
distance. My cry reduces to a guttural sob and I wipe my nose on my
forearm. I feel like a chastened puppy driven out with the thrust
of a broom. Mum has never spoken to us like this before. She is
very angry. But why? It was just a fight! We needed refereeing, not
exile! We haven’t bickered at all this morning, not until then. And
we weren’t bothering her every five minutes, like she said. We’d
barely spoken a word, so engrossed in our work. Maybe she expected
help with the washing. But she hadn’t ask. Normally she asks if she
wants help. I stop at the wood-chop and sit down on the splitting
log, searching my morning for clues. She did seem moody at
breakfast, and dad was more sullen than usual. Perhaps they’d had
an argument earlier. Sometimes I hear them late at night, in the
kitchen with the door closed so we can’t hear. How can you not hear
hysterics like that? We know about it and we are afraid. I wander
below the cypress hedge, finally weaving my way up through the
tangle of branches to my hammock, rolling into safety. I free my
hair and finger comb it tidy, retying it. There are leaves down
inside my shirt. I fish them out. My tears are dry now, only
gulping and sniffling remain. Here I can shrug off the sting of
mum’s words. I am safe. The tightness eases in my stomach. I know I
am loved, but by others, not mum. There’s someone bigger and
kinder, a presence in these trees, around the fields, helping me
put things into perspective. This spirit has taught me that anger
is unpredictable, like fire. And, in a deeper part of me, the same
presence soaks up my pain like blotting paper drying splattered
ink. While the marks remain, at least I can turn to a new page,
feeling warm and safe again, as if protected by a braver, older
sister. Soon my mind buzzes with pleasant thoughts, my eyes
searching the edges of clouds for inspiration. A westerly wind
picks up and it chills me. The tide of air ebbs and flows, lifting
cypress sap and damp, leafy smells to my nose. I watch the clouds
change shape, tumbling, swelling and fading. The sky seems so deep
when I think about it and the very thought leaves a tingle in my
chest. There is something bigger up there, bigger than the sky,
much greater than the empty space mum sends me to; a place beyond
her sickness, where children don’t have to do a penance of chores.
I smile, imagining I have run away to grandad’s. But he’ll send me
back, I know. Perhaps I can build a little house in one of the
bigger trees and live beyond mum’s psychotic episodes. I often
wonder what my real mum is like and whether she is still alive.
While it’s nice to pretend I am missed by a mum and dad, it all
seems so far away. I feel like a tiny boat swept by sinister
currents on a vast ocean. I adjust the hessian bag that pillows my
head. I can understand adoption now, and this knowledge fuels
conflicts, frequent and intense. I wasn’t just chosen from the
babies in the hospital, and it wasn’t sweet like your bed-time
stories. My real mum didn’t want me, or couldn’t keep me. Mum won’t
say which, only that she doesn’t know. She dismisses the topic in a
hurtful, controlling way. Since Chris is adopted too, it is evident
mum can’t bear children of her own. She mentions this once, during
a sex talk, now a subject I am old enough to understand, she says.
‘An arrangement was made,’ I am told, ‘before you were born. The
hospital phoned and I drove to Melbourne to collect you.’ She
pauses there, studying my face as if further disclosure will feed
our conflict. I ask if she met my real mum. ‘No, I never met her,’
she says. ‘And we weren’t given any information about her either.
Only about you.’ Her voice thickens with sweetness, and a smile
spreads to her eyes. ‘So, after a few days I brought you home.’
‘How old was I?’ ‘Only six days, but you were sick. They weren’t
looking after you properly.’ ‘How did you feed me?’ ‘We had
everything ready. I fed you from a bottle, nursing you in that
chair in the spare room. We had your bassinette in our room then.’
‘Yes, I remember that.’ Mum smiles. ‘I think you were a bit young,
dear. You can’t possibly remember that far back. I have kept it for
you. The bassinette. It’s in the top of the linen press.’ ‘But
why?’ ‘So you can use it for your baby, when you’re a mother.’ I
shudder now. The thought of a newborn, the very thought of
motherhood, of looking after a crying, helpless bundle; I couldn’t
do that. I’ve only been close to one baby in my whole life, a
distant cousin, and I was so scared of dropping her that I didn’t
want to hold her at all. Mum continued: ‘We’ve always told you
about being adopted, dear,’ she continued. ‘Other adopted children
haven’t been told and they have found out later from the hurtful
gossip. We want to make sure you know so that won’t happen to you.’
It’s true. That happened to one of my school friends. She learned
of it when a classmate, supposing she knew, made mention of it. Not
maliciously, but the damage was done. The adult version of my past
fails to ease the way between us. The abyss of mistrust and
moodiness remains. It’s not just about being adopted really, more a
contempt and fear borne of the many hurts mum has inflicted on us.
Not unexpectedly, the bell rings for lunch. Mum cooees for dad:
hardly the call of a farmer’s wife. ‘Martin! Ooroo!’ I sigh and the
tightness returns to my throat. The idea of a tree house warrants
further thought. I will scout for materials and locations after
lunch. Mum broods for the rest of the day, resenting my presence so
openly I can feel the fug of it in the kitchen. The mealtime is
quiet and civil, our eyes never quite meeting. She speaks little,
reminding Chris to empty the bucket of scraps for the chooks, and
to replenish their water dish. He is sullen too, and knows the less
said the better. And dad guesses there’s been trouble, too, but he
is beyond caring. Any enquiry, however well meant, will lead to
arguments and unpleasantness. Once puzzled by mum’s emotional
baggage, he has long retired from husbandry, choosing to co-exist
within the perimeters of the house. He eats his roast beef and
salad, adding horseradish from a small white lidded pot with its
own, ridiculously small spoon. Radio news fills the silent, uneasy
corners with familiar voices. Chris excuses himself when his plate
is empty. He knows how to read the situation: he is no longer in
trouble. The focus is on me, now. I remain. We shared the squabble,
but I carry the blame. It has always been so. Mum expects me to
placate her with service, to avoid yet please her. This is her
game. Left alone, I clear the table; jams to the cupboard, milk and
butter to the fridge and dishes stacked by the sink. I wash and
rinse, squeeze the dish mop, and wipe with the rather seedy looking
dishcloth. After tending the stove, I close it down to smoulder
until afternoon teatime. I have a repertoire of chores from which
to choose. There is the ironing mum started, carpets to sweep,
floors to dust and drains that need flushing. I take a straw broom
to the back veranda, and then give the drain a hosing. Water
carries a piece of cut grass down the brick-lined channel, passed
the sandpit. I admire Chris’s freeway overpass. He has used his toy
truck to transport fresh sand to his construction site. A yellow
grader waits nearby. My bucket lies discarded where I dropped it.
What an age ago it seems. As I dig the broom into the corners to
loosening scum I wonder how Chris gets off so easily from these
situations. He just disappears and mum seems lets him off the hook.
Well, most of the time. She was a bit shirty at lunch today. That
eases my hurt. My impatient sweeping frightens a blackbird. It
scurries off in a blur of feathers and twittering. Having completed
my tasks without scrutiny or supervision, I am grateful to leave
the house where mum now lies down. I head off for a bike ride.
Tension lifts after a few laps. Chris is in the workshop with the
wireless blaring. The ute is missing. On the third lap, I pull over
near a row of old cypresses and pines near the driveway gate, and
prop my bike against a fence post. Climbing through the wires, I
enter the horse paddock. There are two ponies now, Mitzi and Tubby,
and they graze near a row of eucalypts dad planted a few years
earlier. These road side trees have been here for half a century.
Beneath them are several piles of hewn limbs, harvested from winter
squalls. An old, squatting cypress fills the corner of the paddock.
Its huge trunk is thick and low, and sprouts sturdy branches dense
with foliage, spreading into a wide canopy. There is a scar where a
heavy limb has been cut away. I use this as a first step and, with
a few easy stretches, reach the broad fork, almost nine feet up.
Here, three branches spread wide. In the space they create, decades
of leaf matter has filled the creases, creating an even floor. I
sit back, and study the space. There is ample room and support for
a platform; a perfect place for a tree house. I feel a knot of
anticipation, eagerness to begin immediately. But, I need sturdy
timber for joists and must ask dad for permission to use his timber
and tools. Already I have some discarded fence posts in mind. As I
sit back, basking in the contentment of my plans, I envisage a
place of my own: with walls, windows, floor, roof and door. Perhaps
even steps to the ground. Already it feels safe and cosy. While mum
rests, I pick a small bunch of picatees from the garden and arrange
them in a tiny vase, placing it on a tray beside a steaming cup of
tea and a biscuit. This is my peace offering. I carry it carefully
up the hallway, with fluid, even steps, so as not to make the cup
and saucer rattle and spoil the surprise. I peep through the crack
in the doorway to see if mum is awake, then creep forward. As
expected, our eyes meet and the offering is accepted. I wait while
she readies herself, propping up on pillows. Then I place the tray
on her lap. She looks up with a faint smile. ‘Thank you, dear.’ Her
voice is thick with sleep, and her hair is in disarray. She lifts
the vase of picatees, inhaling their fragrance of cloves. She tells
me they remind her of her Welsh heritage. The blinds are drawn
against daytime glare, and the curtains hum and sigh, just as I
remember them from infancy. The room smells of mum, of sleep, of
powder and perfume, all equally familiar. Mum crunches the biscuit
to one side of her mouth, and sips her tea. It’s not hot enough, I
know, but it doesn’t matter today: it the gesture that matters. She
rests back against her pillows and I sit down on the bed, relieved
that the worst is over, for I know the ritual. ‘What have you been
up to, dear?’ she inquires, as if nothing has happened. ‘Just
climbing trees,’ I reply, not mentioning the cleaning. ‘And where’s
Chris?’ ‘In the workshop.’ Mum sips her tea and takes a second bite
from her biscuit. ‘Thank you for the tea, dear. And you know I love
these flowers, don’t you?’ ‘Mmm. I love them myself, mum.’ I answer
truthfully. We both undertand what she’s trying to say. ‘Has dad
come in for afternoon tea?’ she asks. ‘Yes. He was taking his boots
off as I came up the hall.’ A pause follows. This part is always
tricky. ‘Mum, I’m sorry about this morning. We didn’t mean to upset
you.’ ‘I know, dear. I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean what I said
either. I was just very angry. I haven’t been sleeping well and was
a bit tired this morning. Your bickering does too much sometimes.’
‘I know. I’ve been thinking about that. Perhaps we should both
choose a different place to play in.’ ‘Perhaps you’re right. I just
wish you got on better.’ ‘Me too.’ I get up, leaving mum to her
thoughtful silence. But she stops me. ‘Jo. We’ve decided to send
Chris to boarding school next year. Dad and I talked it over and we
agree it will be for the best. There’s just not enough to occupy
him on the farm.’ I’m not surprised by this for I spotted a booklet
about Geelong College in a bundle of papers beside the kitchen
wireless. ‘And you’ve told Chris?’ ‘Yes. He’s agreed to attend an
interview. We’ve arranged an appointment with the principal and
housemaster.’ ‘Does he want to go there?’ ‘I think so, yes. A
couple of his friends start next year, too.’ ‘Mmm. That makes a
difference. There’ll be lots of organising, then? Uniforms, I
suppose.’ ‘That’ll come later, when the interviews are done. And I
think it is something you need to consider as well.’ ‘What!
Boarding school?’ I’m startled. ‘Why should I go? ‘Because it’ll
give you a better start in life, dear. You’ll mix with better
girls; opportunities you won’t get in Thalong.’ ‘Better girls.
What’s wrong with the girls at my school?’ ‘Nothing’s wrong with
them dear, it’s just that so many of them are farm girls who’ll
inherit lives like their mums. And I want more for you. I want you
to get a good start, a better education, that’s all.’ She smiles,
trying to soften her words and sweeten the criticism. I can’t argue
with her, for fear of upsetting her again. ‘Okay. I’ll think about
it. But I’m attending Thalong High to start with.’ I can’t imagine
boarding school at any age. It ranks little higher than going to
jail. ‘Which school are you thinking of?’ ‘Carandon. That’s where I
used to teach, remember?’ ‘Where that?’ ‘Ballarat.’ ‘That cold
hole! I don’t want to live in Ballarat, mum. It’s freezing.’ ‘We’ll
see, then.’ She smiles, handing me her tray. The Dismissal. ‘Well,
I’ve something to think about, then.’ I balance the tray, placing
the picatees on mum’s dressing table. ‘Thank you, dear. They look
lovely.’ Another round of chores follows, providing me with time to
think. Boarding school. Humph! Mum can be as snobby as she likes
around other people, but I’m stuffed if I’m going to play that
stupid game, too! I snatch the bucket of kitchen scraps and set off
to feed the chooks and gather the eggs. One is still warm. Upon my
return to the kitchen, mum instructs me to fetch some silver beet
leaves from the vegetable garden and gather an armful of apples
from the storage shelf in the workshop. Chris isn’t there, anymore.
Probably helping dad with milking. Mum and I prepare dinner.
Conversation is a minefield and I am wary. Anything may be
construed as disagreeable or lacking in contrition. After the
dishes, I flee, distrustful of my anger. I ride furiously up and
down the driveway, crossing to the road with reckless speed,
turning tight and hurtling back down the track. The effort and
exhilaration drain my frustrations away. I relish the silence of
dusk, sitting back on the bike seat with my arms outstretched like
wings, and drinking in the gathering stars. I feel calm now, in
control, plotting around mum’s plans. I rest my bike at the fence,
discard my boots and enter the house. The kitchen is filled with
the warm sweetness of stewed apples and cloves. ******

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