Summer Storm

Summer Storm

SUMMER

Our aunt and uncle return to Melbourne early in the new year, leaving grandad with us until winter. Their departure eases tension in the house and our days settle, and Summer heat draws us into the garden. While there is a public swimming pool in Terang, we prefer our own, set up beneath the coral tree, surrounded by a carpet of scarlet blossoms. Although only two yards square, the pool provides ample room for our play. Its coarse, green canvas walls have the same damp smell as aged hay.

The sandpit has been replenished and a swing installed nearby. With acres of farm, our playground is a paradise. Grandad sits in his cane chair reading a newspaper, peering over the pages to referee when needed. He has a knack for predicting squabbles, and steers them back to the realms of play and laughter. Temperatures soar and even mum dons her bathing costume and joins us, shrieking and laughing beneath the garden hose.

Only dad remains in the background, his lean weathered limbs folded, angular like his deck chair. He says little and smiling absently at our antics, his eyes are distant and his mind elsewhere. After lunch grandad removes his tie and vest and rolls up his shirtsleeves. At almost ninety he has shunned short trousers, never wearing them since leaving school. Such affectations are for boys, not men, he assures me.

Neither grandad nor I are distressed by the oppressive weather. He has a quiet, steady way of resisting the heat. However, my resilience is puzzling: the hotter the day, the more animated I feel, much like a lizard out in summer sun. Everyone else gathers indoors on sweltering days, sprawled and motionless before the single oscillating fan, while I bound with the exuberance of a blowfly.

Mercifully, a sea breeze reaches the farm by mid afternoon. It has crossed miles of crisp pasture and bushland, yet still offers relief. Curtains and windows are opened, and the house becomes a shady retreat. Grown ups relax with tinkling drinks. They set up a picnic table on the front veranda, and serve summer salads with crusty bread, cream and home-made jam. The stove remains idle till morning.

Evenings are blessedly long, dusk stretching to well after nine. Bats flit and careen around darkening trees, and the crickets’ trill resonates inside our heads. Eyelids grow heavy with sleep. As my brother and I remain encamped on the side veranda, it is a short journey to our beds.

After several days of intense heat, mugginess surrenders to the north wind. Blustering in from parched deserts, the dry heat draws moisture from every surface. Windows, doors and blinds are closed, yet the heat remains stifling, snaking beneath doors and sucking its own breath from chimneys. Turbulent gusts surge through the trees and into the open mouths of sheds. In full shade hydrangeas wilt, roses and lavender droop, and green, fleshy vegetable leaves simper in a haze of evaporation.

The wind drops at sunset, leaving a residual heat that radiates from the earth, walls and paving. Night hangs over us like a stifling blanket. Cool showers and drinks offer temporary relief. Curtains hang becalmed at gaping windows, and bodies toss, restless in scant cotton. Above, the deep sky taunts and beckons. A brief reprieve creeps through tousled dreams at dawn, before the first rays of morning cross parched stubble paddocks, paling as I watch from my perch on the big gate.

The fist flushes of north wind send shade scuttling, and exhausted bodies rise. Cattle seek shelter beneath hedgerows and cypresses, their ears and tails twitching at flies. Tepid, wind-rankled water is framed by mud paving, crazed into fragments by the wind.

There is little to do around the farm on such days. The milk herd has dwindled, most cows saving nourishment for their unborn calves. We check them regularly, and flush their troughs with fresh water. Mitzi, our house pony, slumps, motionless beneath the pine tree, too tired to forage. She awaits lush trimmings tossed over the vegetable garden fence this evening. While chooks perch in their shed, Husso, the border collie, has deserted his kennel, dozing fitfully in a bed of cool nasturtiums, beneath a tank stand.

Even flies are stilled by the heat, feasting on orchard windfalls. Crops of nectarines, plums and apricots ripen. Plump apples and pears feed voracious grubs. Blackbirds forage among the raspberry canes.

By the third day, the north wind increases to a gale, and vacuums bare earth into a skyward haze. Heavy clouds appear on the western horizon, like bunches of purple grapes glazed by a silver bloom of intense sunlight. They swell as the day wearies, rising like a battalion of towering anvils. By mid afternoon, swelled, bruised and menacing, they draw a shale canopy towards the sun. The wind drops and the air becomes sweet and heavy with the approaching storm. Distant lightning arcs as the billowing mass extinguishes the relentless sun.

Now the air vibrates and its energy is exhilarating. I stand on the veranda steps, my eyes wide, anticipating a spectacle of theatrical proportions. A surge of moist sea air roars like surf through the elm trees, and speckles my cheeks with rain. From the back yard I hear the windmill tiller surge and fan blades shudder. The barometer needle plunges, jumping even further with a tap from dad’s finger.
‘Mmm,’ he says, giving a sniff of satisfaction.

Rumbles of thunder reverberate through the house, setting Nick and I dancing with excitement. Even the grown-ups are revived by the thought of rain. There is a hint of smoke, aromatic and comforting.
‘Probably spot fires in the reserve,’ says grandad. ‘This storm will put them out.’
‘Not before they’ve traveled,’ says dad.

Two magpies are caught in a gust of wind. They hurtle out of a pine tree by the road side, shrieking and flapping their way back, seeking advantage in the ebb and flow of the squall. Finally they surrender, gliding back over us to the big cypress, squawking as they find purchase among flailing branches.

There is an eerie stillness, now. The seconds tick by, fattened by our expectation. A bolt of lightning is a mere formality. The blinding flash arcs above us, unleashing an instantaneous blast that concusses walls and clutter. Thunder rattles, clotting like cannon fire, punching the sullen blackness. Before we can think, a second flash detonates, sending a tympani of rattles ripping through the air so palpably that we scurry for safety.
‘Ooh, that was close,’ says dad, impressed by the volley.
I cling to grandad’s chair, terrified.
Even Nick is shaken. ‘It sounded like it hit the house!
‘No,’ says grandad, his voice timed and gentle. ‘If it had, you wouldn’t have heard thunder like that, just a big bang.’
The adults laugh, but there is a nervous edge in their voices.
‘How do you know?’ Nick challenges.
‘Well,’ grandad continues. ‘There was a pause after those flashes, and each second translates into hundreds of feet away from us.’
‘Mmm,’ dad agrees. ‘Storms frightened me as a boy, so grandad taught me to count the seconds between a bolt of lightning and thunder. Five seconds means a mile, doesn’t it?’
Grandad nods, smiling at the memory of many storms and summers.

‘Let’s count the next one, then,’ mum suggests.
But she speaks too late. A flash of pink-white forks between her words into the trees on the other side of the road.
‘Whoa!’ declares Nick. ‘That was close, dad!’
I think so, too. ‘I saw it hit the trees behind Fahey’s place!’
‘Okay,’ mum urges. ‘Quiet and let’s concentrate on the next one.’
We all wait, our eyes straining to see everywhere at once, words ready at shutter speed. With the next flash we chant each second.
‘Seven,’ exclaims Nick as thunder grumbles. The sound expands, washing over us. Crack! Another bolt dashes a clump of box thorn in a distant paddock. We count again. ‘Eight.’ And fresh laughter. The next flash highlights a line of pines snaking up the slope to Lake Keilembete. We count under our breath.
‘Five!’ As a volley of rattles rips the brooding sky.

The storm has passed beyond our house, and drops of rain strike the iron roof. Some land on the edge of the veranda, and break into tiny beads. Others leave damp circles the size of pennies on the cement steps. Stillness follows.
‘Surely that’s not all?’ Mum declares.
‘Can’t be,’ dad agrees.
We study the silence and the marble clouds rolling over us. Then sounds of gravel thrown on tin draw our eyes upward to the roof. Hailstones. Some skitter along the steps, leaving berries of ice squatting in a pool of their own juice. More of them spit onto the gravel and one or two slash at hydrangea leaves. Then the wind returns, cool with the fullness of the storm, driving sheets of hail forward and making the veranda untenable. We move indoors, our voices of barely audible beneath the din.

As windows are closed, lightning and thunder resume, a backdrop to the fury of wind and rain. The heatwave is over, and every surface thirsts for moisture. The deluge creates rivulets from garden beds that spill into deltas on the driveway. Gutterings overflow, and wind sprays rain at my bedroom window, leaving a web of water-droplets on the fly wire. The temperature plummets.

After our evening meal we return to the veranda. The turbulence has passed, the disarmed sun resting below crisp clouds, all pink and orange, tinting the garden with unnatural light. There is a distinct tang hovering in the air that reminds me of fresh, sun-dried washing, straight from the clothesline.

An occasional puff of wind sends showers from the trees.
‘I hope you two will be okay out here tonight.’ Mum gets up from her chair and walks round to inspect our camp, concerned by the dampness and a possible chill.
‘It’s dry, mum,’ Nick assures her.
We follow behind.
‘It seems cool now because it’s been so hot.’ I add. ‘Remember the cool evenings before Christmas? I had to fill my hot-water bottle then. That’s cooler than now.’
‘Mmm.’ Mum runs her hands along Nick’s tent wall, not entirely convinced. ‘It feels dry.’
‘And look, mum.’ I beckon her over. ‘The wall here is still warm. Feel it.’ Rough conite radiates warmth against my hand.
‘Well. All right.’ She is convinced for now. ‘But if there’s another storm I want you two inside. And if the weather stays cool over the next few days, you’re to move back indoors and dismantle your tents.’
‘But mum!’ I whine in dismay. ‘It’s still the holidays.’ We have been out here for three weeks and it feels like forever: my room dull and silent comparison.
‘You have to come in sometime, Jo. You can’t stay out here for ever.’
‘We know that,’ says Nick. ‘But for now, for the holidays there’s no harm, as long as the nights are mild.’ He knows how to reassure her.
‘And, who knows,’ I persist. ‘There might more hot weather. After all, it’s only January.’
‘True,’ mum agrees, reaching to smooth my pillow. ‘All right then. Let’s see how it goes.’
I cheer and hug her arm, silently hoping for a heatwave till holiday’s end, whenever that was.

* * *

The next week is mild and bright. We carry toy boats to sail on the troughs, and sticks for prodding mouse burrows, for waving about as swords and for poking each other. But, most importantly, they are ideal for testing the electric fence.

Each year dad grows crops in one of the larger paddocks, a blend of rape and turnips. It serves as summer feed for the cattle. After sowing in spring, we watch the field take on a smoky-green hue typical of the Brassica family. The rich volcanic soil requires no irrigation, although there is another bore for that purpose. Seasonal rain keeps the crop lush. After harvest the hay, we open the crop for grazing, later this year due to late spring rains.

Cows gather about us along the fence as dad opens the gate. They sniff the lushness beyond. Yesterday, we had helped dad set up the electric fence, unreeling bare wire and fixing it to a line of poles, each pressed firmly into the ground. At the far side of the paddock is a yellow metal box, holding a battery to power the fence.

Husso strains forward, keen to drive the sluggish herd through the gate. After ten months of sweet rye and clover pasture, this new feed has a pungent odour. The first cow steps forward, regarding dad warily. Her ears are pulled forward and she lowers her head, sniffing and licking her muzzle. A she steps further, others nudge. A few more steps and they follow, streaming in, feeding greedily as they walk.

The electric fence must be moved each morning in order to provide a fresh strip for grazing. At one side, dad disconnects the battery, and pulls the first pole from the soil. He paces ten yards into the fresh crop before pressing it back into the ground. While he relocates the battery, we unhook and move the remaining poles across the field, lining them up with the first. Clouds of white cabbage moths flutter into the air, settling in our wake. Dad lifts the wire at the other side of the paddock and we drag it over the crop, affixing it to each pole. Then dad reels in the slack.

Now it’s our task to wade through the sea of leaves and test the fence. This is where our sticks come in handy. With the battery reconnected, dad signals and we take turns at resting our sticks on the wire, the shock kicking up our arm. If there is no power, we walk the length of the fence, snapping off any leaves that may earth the circuit. An encore test confirms the fence is working. It’s not a pleasant chore, but it offers a game of daring and courage. With the cattle grazing, we head back to the house for morning tea.

Husso drinks thirstily from his water dish on the veranda, while we quench ours with glasses of cold milk, munching on sweet biscuits, with feet swinging beneath our chairs. Grandad heads for the side veranda for his morning nap. Each of us has preferred tasks. Today Nick plans to start on a new tunnel in the haystack and has invited me to help him.

‘Oi!’ Mum calls. ‘Before you two disappear for the day, how about taking down the decorations in the dining room. After all, it is January.’
Her request isn’t popular.
‘Can’t we leave till a rainy day?’ Nick pleads.
‘You could just as easily leave your tunnel for a rainy day. Besides, the tree is dead and dropping leaves all over the floor.’ Husso slumps onto the veranda as we shuffle back inside, collecting a ladder, broom, dustpan and brush on our way. Two hours later we reappearing, carrying the balding tree to the bonfire pile in the horse paddock.

* * *

Mum says grandad named our farm Rostrevor after a place in Ireland. She has more details and I listen intently.
‘He’s lived here since the land was first opened to settlers more than seventy ago.’
Following his lead, dad maintains a fine orchard and vegetable garden, providing fresh food for our table. Until now, I have taken this abundance for granted, not recognising a privilege many do not enjoy.

I help mum with the shopping. At the grocers I watch as a woman buys eggs, fruit and vegetables, and it gets me thinking. Once out of earshot, I ask mum, ‘Why did that lady buy eggs and lemons when they have them at home?’
‘Some people don’t have chooks and lemons trees.’
‘Why?’ I persist, struggling to the car with a heavy raffia bag.
‘Perhaps they have no room in their garden.’
‘But chooks don’t take up that much room.’
‘True.’ Mum eases her basket onto the backseat. ‘Perhaps they don’t know how, or can’t be bothered.’
‘But they pay for those squashy lemons and tiny eggs when they could grow them for free.’ I hand mum my bag. And something else is puzzles me. ‘How come we don’t grow oranges and onions, then?’
‘We have an orange tree in the front garden, near the birdbath. But oranges don’t grow well here. The fruit doesn’t seem to ripen. As for onions, dad doesn’t have enough room. I’ve been at him to make the vegie garden bigger, but he says he’s too busy with the farm to grow more vegetables.’
‘Is that why we don’t grow potatoes?’
‘Probably, though they’re cheap and easy to buy from farmers.’
While this makes sense, it occurs to me. ‘Why don’t we have our own meat then?’
‘Our cows are for milking, not eating. Sometimes we butcher a chook for Christmas.’

Mum settles me into the seat. ‘Just think how lucky we are to have all these wonderful things growing at home. And if other people miss picking their own cherries then it’s their choice.’

The conversation entices me to explore the garden I love, reveling in the bounty of its harvest, the freshness, variety and flavour of each meal. From summer to autumn, mulberries and raspberries come straight to our plates, needing only a dollop of cream and a sprinkle of castor sugar. We munch apricots and plums between meals, and every journey through the orchard or vegetable garden provides a snack.

After autumn harvest, when most leaves have fallen, we help dad carry orchard prunings to the bonfire pile, taking turns for a bumpy wheelbarrow ride back to the garden. From late winter I visit the asparagus beds, waiting for the first tender spears to emerge from the dark soil. Cherry blossoms transform dormant twigs in the front garden and the apricot tree follows. Almost overnight swathes of blossoms fill the orchard, branches dancing to the hum and flurry of bees.

Heavy fragrance permeates the air from a solitary lemon tree, its branches speckled with flowers and drooping under a crop of fruit. We squeeze the lemons for cordial, scrape the zest for baking and desserts, and squeeze wedges over fresh fish.

Even in the depths of winter, the harvests of summer and autumn grace kitchen shelves. The labour of hot afternoons, the picking, peeling and cutting, fill preserving and jam jars. Apples line dark shelves in the workshop and providing stock well into spring. Their ripe musk lingers, drowning mechanical odours, and their oily skins wrinkle as the year draws on. Parsnips, carrots and leafy greens provide supply fresh from the garden.

One still, spring afternoon we scuttle from the garden while dad dons a red haversack and sprays orchard trees and vegetables for grubs. Already longer days entice asparagus to our table, steaming beneath lashings of butter. Early beans and tomatoes are staked, and shoots of summer mint stipple soil in a rusty half-drum. Parsley grows in unruly clumps and chive-spikes grow with military precision. Radishes lie washed on the kitchen sink beside cabbage and silver beet. Well before Christmas the lettuce is ready for harvest, and dad prepares pickled beetroot.

In anticipation of salads, mum makes tangy mayonnaise. Gone are winter casseroles of beef and lamb. Slivers of corned beef, ham, pork and lamb are arranged on fading red dinner plates. Slices of aromatic tomatoes, crimson radish and grated carrot decorate lacy salads. Hard-boiled eggs and sticks of cheese added substance to our feasting while mustard, horseradish, chutney and pickles challenge beetroot with tang, colour and bouquet.

By mid-summer, apricots and nectarines firm, gripping their branches in hot northerlies. Hoses soak the acre of lawn, flick-flicking until dusk, refreshing exhausted grapevines, wilting violets and thirsty hydrangeas.

As apples fatten, windfalls are gifted to Mitzi as a juicy treat. Granny Smith is first to the table, then golden delicious and Jonathans. Finally my favourite apple ripens on a single tree between asparagus beds. I hoard the windfalls and covet the ripening harvest. Rosy skin belies snow-white, perfect flesh. The pear tree branches strain beneath ripening fruit. Eager hands lighten the load several times a day, biting through green marbled skin and leaving only the stem and seeds, tossed in unruly summer grass. No wonder we are never hungry at mealtimes.

We emerge from raspberry picking, scratched and tired, rosy lips and stained fingers, and with little to show for our efforts. Mum accepts our paltry offerings and sends us back for more, as she does to the mulberry tree.
‘You’ve been eating them,’ she accuses.
I’m quick to defence, popping another berry into my mouth. ‘They’re too squishy for the table.’
‘Well, you must be more gentle picking them,’ and she demonstrates how to twist and pull.
‘What’s the point of picking them when we’ll eat them in a few hours, anyway?’
‘Well, think of your father for a start,’ says mum. ‘Doesn’t he deserve some? And what about the pots of jam we need for winter?’
Chastened, we return to work.

Harvesting peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines is left entirely to Nick and me. We strip the trees in several weeks, picking the fruit as it ripens, reaching uppermost branches on ladders to collect fruit in wicker baskets slung over our arms. Mum preserves the harvest in batches every few days until the pantry quakes beneath the heavy jars. Tomatoes join them in autumn, supplying our needs until the next harvest.

Turnips are the only vegetable we dislike.
‘We have to walk through acres of them every day,’ Nick whines, prodding the stuff on his plate.
‘And they taste so strong,’ I add. ‘They remind me of the crop and the taste the milk gets.’
Ignoring me, mum spoons a pat of mash onto my plate. ‘Most of the cows are dry by now, dear. Dad is hand-milking them now.’
Unimpressed, we scowl at our plates. Across the table, grandad takes his serviette and wipes his mouth, unsuccessfully hiding a smile.
‘Turnips are good for you,’ he manages, finally. And we have no reason to doubt this fact.
‘They’re even better for chooks,’ says Nick, cheekily.

Future servings are disguised with a blend of mashed carrots and we clean our plates, unaware of the deception. But, the house is divided over tripe. I spot it lying on a plate by the sink, just before dinner. It looks like a piece of sponge.
‘What’s that, mum?’
‘Tripe.’
‘What’s tripe? Is it a vegetable?’
‘No, dear. It’s meat. It comes from a sheep’s stomach.’
‘Ugh! Looks disgusting. Is that what my tummy looks like?’
‘Pretty much.’

Mum and Nick like tripe served with glossy parsley sauce. I nibble at the piece on my fork but can’t bear to put it in my mouth. Dad doesn’t help.
‘It’s works,’ he says.
‘What’s works?’ I ask.
‘Any part of an animal that’s not meat,’ says grandad. ‘Like kidneys and liver.’
‘Don’t you like liver, grandad?’
He shakes his head. ‘Not very much.’
‘Dad says he won’t touch works,’ mum explains, her voice toneless. ‘It’s his mother’s fault. She said it was offal and wouldn’t serve it at the table.’ Her criticism treads on dangerous ground.
‘But you eat lamb’s fry and bacon, dad. I’ve seen you.’ I weighing in, my fork waving in the air. ‘And grandad, too!’
Yes,’ dad admits. ‘But only when it’s smothered in gravy and bacon so I can’t see or taste it.’
Mum shakes her head and her face reddens. She rams peas on her fork.
‘Same for brains and bacon,’ he adds.
‘Merlin!’ Mum cuts him short. ‘That’s enough.’
He shrugs in apology.

The meal continues in silence. Grandad has to wipe his mouth thoroughly with his serviette.
I time my next question carefully. ‘Can we try brains, mum?’ I ask, politely.
‘We’ll see.’
‘Dad?’ Now Nick is curious. ‘Why don’t we butcher our own meat like the neighbours do?’
‘We haven’t a freezer, and we don’t run vealers.’
‘Did you ever butcher meat, grandad?’ I ask.
‘Occasionally. When Granny Clarke was alive.’
Dad nods, remembering. ‘Usually steers. We’d share the meat with our family out at Garvoc.’
‘With my brothers and sons’, grandad explains. ‘Your uncles, and Aileen.’
‘Dairy farmers don’t usually slaughter cattle,’ dad adds.

There’s something else I’ve wondered. ‘Have you ever had sheep on the farm, dad?’
‘No.’ He replies adamantly.
‘Why?’
‘They ruin perfectly good pasture. I’m not having sheep here.’
Grandad nods in agreement. Their conviction surprises me and I leave the subject hanging.
‘We eat our own chooks, though,’ dad reminds me. ‘At Christmas time.’
‘And rabbit in casseroles,’ says mum.
‘But only when they’re not baited,’ says dad, who doesn’t approve of rabbit.

We eat in silence again, all lost in thought. I push the tripe to one side and eat my vegetables hungrily. ‘Have we always had a vegie garden, dad?’
‘Yes. Grandad taught me that.’
‘And the orchard?’
‘Yes. That, too. He and my mother planted it.’
‘Did you make the farm, grandad?’ asks Nick.
‘Yes, I bought the land after sub-division; fenced it off and built this house.’
‘This is still grandad’s home in a sense,’ mum says, looking at him with genuine affection.
‘Yes, that’s right,’ he confirms. ‘I enjoy living in Melbourne but this is where my heart belongs. And I miss you two bundles of mischief,’ he adds, smiling at each of us in turn.

Grandad wanders into the sitting room to read the newspaper and have a snooze, stiffly easing himself into his worn rocking chair. It is by far the most elegant piece in the house, shipped to Australia from his father’s birthplace in Devon. He rests his walking sticks against the cupboard and reaches across to the bench top for his newspaper. Beside him the cupboard stores photograph albums spanning four generations of our family, from delicate sepia to Kodachrome. There’s a slide projector, too, with boxes of slides. And a collection of indoor games: bobs, skittles, draughts, monopoly and playing cards. A basket, carved from coconut shell, stores six sets of coloured marbles and matching quandongs. We use these as counters for Chinese checkers.

Above the cupboard the shelves are filled with books. A few faded volumes of poetry are bound in embossed leather, with gilt pages, and inscribed by his parents, friends and family. Alongside the Pears Cyclopaedia stand a few homeopathic volumes, including the one I loathe. A King James Bible is sandwiched between dad’s reference books, many in worn dust jackets with rough cut pages. Recent publications on philosophy, plant and bird identification, astronomy and even herd improvement bear evidence to his personal path to understanding. Other than a few compilations of Dickens and Edwardian classics, there are no novels.

Mum prefers literary works and keeps these shelved by her chair on the other side of the fireplace. I have explored her craft and women’s magazines and some large picture books, one about the coronation of the queen. Between her chair and the shelves sits a large copper kettle, used to store firewood. Granny Clarke once used it for cooking. It is family piece mum has garnered during her struggle for a foothold here, in dad’s family home.

At first, grandad snoozes peacefully. But he is often stirred by the gentle rocking of his chair, strange considering the chair has no such device. Then the pages of his newspaper, fallen upon his lap, begin to jump as if in spasm. Finally the space beneath his chair fills with impish, half-stifled giggles.
‘What’s this mischief?’ he calls, still half asleep.
At this the chair rocks more violently, forcing him to grip the armrests and plant his feet firmly on the floor.
‘Enough!’ he commands. Obediently the disturbance ceases, but for a few giggles. He sits back waiting for more. Something hooks his ankle and gently drags his foot beneath the chair. When he resists the pulling ceases only to resume in a few seconds. He notices a walking stick is missing.

There is movement at his back where gaps in the chair permit room for little fingers to prod and poke. Then there is a crawling sensation up the back of his neck and into his thinning, silvery hair. His hand darts to catch the offender but he’s too slow, and snorts of mirth and giggles explode from behind the chair.

At last I poke my head up over the armrest where he can see me.
‘It’s you, little imp!’ he declares, grinning at my tear-stained face, so reddened with unspent giggles. He folds his paper and returns it to the bench, smiling an invitation for me to climb on his lap. Snuggling warmly against his coat, it is not long till temptation builds again. I pull at a gold chain disappearing into his waistcoat pocket and withdraw a gold watch, peering up at him for permission to open it.
I calculate the time. ‘The little hand is after three and the big hand is on the nine.’
‘So what time does that make it?’
‘A quarter before four!’
‘A quarter to four,’ he corrects with a broad smile.
I close the watch carefully and return it. ‘So, it must be afternoon tea time!’
‘I suppose you’re right, little mischief!’

I climb down and help him retrieve his walking stick from behind the chair. He eases up and I slip onto the chair behind him. My legs are too short to reach the footrest so I rock by leaning forwards and backwards as I do on the swing.
‘Grandad? Would you give me a little push, please.’
Steadying, he takes a few steps and pulls the chair gently.
‘I wish I had a chair like this one, grandad. It is most wonderful.’
‘Don’t worry, mischief. One day you will have one exactly like this.’
‘How?’
‘Time brings many things to those who wait.’

I frown, unsure what he means. He often talks in riddles.

* * *

Walking through dad’s office to the veranda door, Nick pauses at the desk. Unusually, the bureau lid lies open, papers scattered upon it, as if dad left suddenly. At the back of the compartment he spots a curious brass cylinder, not unlike the ship’s telescopes we’ve discovered. He picks it up, surprised at its weight. The top and bottom of the cylinder are sealed by thick glass lenses. Placing the instrument down, he notices how it magnifies his father’s handwriting. The temptation is too much and he smuggles the glass out to his bed on the veranda.

The lenses are removable and he unscrews one of them. It bulges convexly. He studies the hairs and pores of his hand, never imagining their detail.
‘Watch ya got?’ I startle him. He attempts to hide the glass, but I’ve been watching through the tent opening.
‘A magnifying glass,’ he replies disdainfully. ‘Bugger off!’
I wait, silent, until he resumes his study.
‘May I have a look through that other bit?’ I ask.
Recognising the opportunity for peace, he agrees, and hands me the cylinder.
‘Crikey, it’s heavy!’
‘Yeah, I know. So don’t bust it. Dad doesn’t know we’ve got it!’
I study my skin and fingernails. The details are not pretty. My tender fingertips resemble crusty oyster shell. I examine the fibres of my clothes, intrigued by their knobbly filaments.
‘Nick! Look at your shorts under this thing.’ He doesn’t reply.
‘Nick?’ I peer over the chest of drawers. He’s gone.

I tuck the glass under my pillow and leapt off the veranda. Perhaps he’s sneaked round the front. That’d be why I didn’t hear him. I follow the driveway but there’s no sign of him: the paddock is empty. Perhaps the orchard? I cross the lawn to the archway, straining my ears for clues to his whereabouts. I spot him crouched by the wattle tree, with his back to me. Drawing closer I can smell burning leaves and there’s a fine plume of smoke rising over his shoulder. He’s so intent he barely acknowledges me.

I kneel down to watch.
‘Get outa m’way,’ he snaps. ‘You’re blocking the sun!’
I’m used to his impatience and sit back to allow his anger to dissipate. He’s holding the lens so the sun shines through it, and I want to see more. Beneath the glass, a fine circle of brilliant light focuses on a wattle leaf, now visibly smouldering.
‘Wow,’ I breathe. ‘You’ve made fire.’
‘Hmm,’ he replies.
‘Where’d you learn that?’
‘From a How and Why book I got for Christmas.’
I’d seen them, slim sciencey-looking volumes with pictures of prisms, planets and volcanoes.

He claws some dry grass and places it on the smouldering leaf and we hear the magic crackle, as flame engulfs the scant pile. As he reaches for more fuel, I help him, gathering grass, twigs, anything within reach. Soon we have a real fire going and scrounge for more twigs. I lean against the tree, watching, and remember. Once, when we were playing with flames and coals in the sitting-room fireplace, mum caught us. She was so angry she held my hand in the flame for a few seconds. I was terrified, and took off, retreating into my bedroom, howling. I couldn’t understand why she’d done it. Later, when she found me wedged between the wardrobe and the wall, she tried to explain.
‘I had to do it, dear,’ she began.
‘Rubbish!’ I screamed, stamping my foot.
‘How else can I teach you the danger of fire? It ruins homes and people’s lives.’
‘I know that. I’m not stupid,’ I snap. ‘That’s why we were playing in the fireplace, for God’s sake!’ I was angry and defiant. ‘Dad has taught us about fire so we can help him burn off. I even burned my hand picking up a stick with embers on it? You bandaged it, remember? I know what fire can do!’
‘Perhaps you don’t realise how fire can get away on you.’
‘We hear about it every summer, mum. Why do you think we were using the fireplace? You could’ve hurt me doing that!’ I punch at the air with my wounded hand.
‘It was only a few seconds. It didn’t really burn you, did it?’
She reaches, but I snatch my hand away. ‘How was I to know that?’
‘Because you know I wouldn’t do anything to harm you.’
‘Really?’ I sneer, knowing otherwise. ‘Well, you’ve made your point. So leave me alone!’
Mum waits.
I stamp my foot at her. ‘Go! Leave me a-bloody-lone!’
She did.

It saddens me, remembering how painfully mum deals with us. It’s hard enough being a mum, I suppose, but she didn’t learn that from teaching training. Leaving Nick, I return to the veranda. I must have drifted off to sleep.
Nick howls at me from the orchard. ‘Get over here. Help me!’ He sounds desperate.
I sit up, dazed.
‘Quick. The fire’s got away. It’s in the rock garden.’
I fly off the veranda. Feeding the garden hose over the hedge, I open the tap and run in to help him. Smoke billows up from the blaze but the flames do not have a good hold yet, and Nick manages to extinguish them quickly. Then he douses the original fire to ensure all the embers are soaked.

I curl up my nose. The wet cinders stink. ‘Whew! That was close.’
‘Yeah. Just turned my back and it was away. A gust of wind must have carried a spark, see.’ There’s no trail to the rockery.
‘Dad won’t be impressed.’
‘I know that. But we can show him we put it out.’
‘Fair enough,’ I agree, accepting my share. ‘He’ll be angry though.’ I reach for a stick and scribble the evidence into surrounding leaves and grass, and then Nick washes it in. Though the scorch is barely visible, now, we can’t disguise the smell.
‘At least he’ll only yell once,’ I counsel. ‘He’ll be worried as well as angry.’

By some miracle, dad fails to notice the smell that afternoon but, the next day he discovers the damage. Questions are asked but the sting of his anger is soothed by the outcome. His only concern is Nick’s negligence.
‘Talk about a stupid thing to do. You’re very lucky it didn’t get further away. Could’ve lost a haystack or even the house.’
‘I know that, dad. More so, now.’ Nick’s remorse is genuine and even mum goes easy on us.
‘I think they’ve had enough of a fright, Merlin. You won’t try that stunt again, will you Nick?

We were frightened, but the incident does little to dampen our curiosity about fire.

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