Mt Noorat

Mt Noorat

Caning Numbers

Today great pride stirs within me. An author used to live in Noorat, three miles from our farm. Indeed, Alan Marshall had attended our school years ago, and my dad knew him. He mentioned this quite casually yesterday evening, at dinner.

‘We weren’t really friends or anything,’ he’d said. ‘He was much older than me. I was in grade one or two I think. I remember him because he needed crutches and leg braces in order to walk. When I left for boarding school I lost track of him. Next thing I know he’s published a book.’

Immediately my sympathies rally. ‘Did the kids tease him?’
‘Lord no! If anyone gave him trouble he’d biff them with his crutches.’
While I’m not sure who Alan Marshall really is, I do know that anyone who writes a book is doubly blessed to know my dad.

Noorat is a vibrant hamlet boasting a pub, three churches and two schools, all nestled into folds of pasture, below brackened foothills, cladding the mountain. Beyond our school, a red-bricked butter factory hides the cruel slash of a quarry and, opposite, shops and houses line the crossroads. It is more a village than a town, but I regard villages as storybook fixtures, the quaint or peculiar, exotic human habitations in magazines. Any small Australian town is just a town to me.

Dry stonewalls line the roadsides and others snake off over undulating paddocks. Built by early settlers, some are patchily maintained, others barely a line of rubble. But several have been meticulously restored, now proud boundaries affording sheltering windbreaks for cattle, and slowing the pestilence of rabbits.

I tail Nick on my bike, along the final stretch of road, a gentle decline to the corner pub. After crossing the intersection we approach our school, almost three miles from home. A median strip divides the wide bullock road for several hundred yards, separating the school from the shops. A variety of wattles grow there, some now in flower, heralding Australian springtime, much like daffodils and thawing snow in Europe. I regard these golden smudges with an affection borne of my distaste for long winters and the promise of long, easy summers.

Scooting my bike up to the school fence, I smile for Alan Marshall and my dad. And as I carry my blue school case into the yard, I imagine dad standing here forty years earlier. This and the sturdy blue stone walls exude the admirable quality of permanence.

We share our class room with grade three and the library. It’s not a whole library, as such, but a dozen shelves along one wall, overflowing with fiction and reference books. Here I discover the Famous Five and Secret Seven: these adventurers are my heroes. Browsing one day, I even find a copy of ‘I Can Jump Puddles’, Alan Marshall’s famous book. My eclectic tastes draw me further afield. I devour ‘How and Why’ books, atlases and folk tales. I investigate faddish novels about horses and nurses, recommended by my friends, but am disappointed though, recently dad bought me a pony so I can learn to ride and help him with the cattle. We call him Tubby, because he is.

Already there is a new focus developing on the farm. Dad has trialed beef farming for several years and built up a reasonable herd. Several loads of steers have already been trucked to market. The fewer demands of a grazier’s life appeal to him. He’s in his fifties now, and tires of the daily grind of milking. Holidays are rare for him, and even Sunday drives are foreshortened by demands of the dairy.

Recently the milk factory informed him of new requirements: they will now collect his milk in bulk tankers – all part of new, stringent health regulations. And, for this, the dairy cool-room must be fitted with refrigeration, a costly outlay to install and operate. Dad decides against it, and names an auction date for the sale of his dairy. He will keep only a couple of jerseys as house cows.

Auction day reminds me of the dreaded garden parties of my childhood. While I understand there is no danger, the sight of so many neighbours and strangers milling about the sheds and yards is confronting. Officials, dressed in tweed jackets with identifying ribbons, clamber over our implements and fences. One even shoos me aside. In my own home! After the auction, trucks and trailers file down the driveway, carting off goods, including some of Granny Clarke’s furniture.

With the closure of the dairy come further changes. By the end of first term, I’m coasting along quite well and enjoying school. My reading has improved, artwork and essay writing indicate some talent, but I struggle with arithmetic, particularly formulas and problem solving. The more I try, the more muddled I become – confused, panicking, until I totally lose the thread of the lesson. I ask for help and follow the teacher’s examples perfectly but, when left to complete the next few exercises, the fog descends again.

On this last day of term mum issues an odd instruction:
‘Bring everything home from school this afternoon, like you would at the end of the year. She offers no explanation for this and speaks in a tone that discourages inquiry. The ride home is perilous, with my bike basket weighed down by bulging bags, and my blue school case hooked in my fingertips. As we lumber our loads inside, mum informs us we will return to the Terang Primary School next term.

‘There is more opportunity there,’ she declares, her tone bossy and challenging. I can only suspect she has had unpleasant words with someone at Noorat: that there has been a falling out at the school. Dad remains silent, though clearly disapproving. I’m too stunned to argue. Our holidays are filled with fretting, anger and regret. Goodbyes remain unspoken, my confidence is shaken, and the gloom of yet another change looms. Mum seems intent on steep and uninvited challenges that leave too many questions, resentment and confusion in their wake.

On the first day of term two, I dress in my grey woolen tunic, shirt, tie and new school jumper. Thankfully mum drives us to school. I can barely recall it now, having attended it only briefly, three years ago. It has an imposing front gate, expansive grounds and a maze of corridors. Already there is a hum of activity, unnerving because we are late. There is not one child in sight, and we’ve missed morning assembly.

The principal welcomes us back and his warmth seems genuine. His secretary leads me to my new class. We cross the assembly hall, where preps and grade ones sit cross-legged in rows, reminding me of my first day here. I pause, sensing some fearsome presence. I realise I am standing adjacent to Miss Dalrymple’s prep class.
‘Come on, dear,’ the lady calls from across the hall. ‘No time to dawdle. You’re already late.’

We enter a classroom of orderly, attentive children, halfway through their lesson. All eyes turn and stare as we enter. A short, gruff man of dad’s age directs me to a desk and the girl beside me introduces herself as Denise. I sit down, tucking my new school bag beneath the chair, and my tunic around my thighs. The room is quite cold. We resume a geography lesson, and the teacher, Mr Wellman, refers to a wall map of Australia. They are discussing the location of recent news items and I listen intently, already interested.

I have never had a male teacher before, never even seen one. Mr Wellman reminds me of the Wizard of Oz from pictures in my story book: the small, tanned face, hooked nose and a dark smudge of eyebrows on his forehead. His hair is tightly curled, cut short at the sides and back, but in unruly tufts on his crown. Although gruff and much less kindly than my Noorat teachers, I assume this is how men are. His redemption is in his trove of knowledge and the very methodical way he teaches, which I enjoy. Most lessons raise topics reaching into the applicable world beyond our own region, challenging and satisfying my curiosity.

We are learning the three times table, something I have yet to master. Placing an exercise book before me, Mr Wellman prods the back cover where multiplication tables are displayed. Each day we chant these together, assured by our teacher that repetition is the best way to memorise. I enjoy the rhythm and singing of it.

Denise eases my way, organises a locker, explains the school routine, and introduces me to older students, and boys. She is a redheaded, freckly chatterbox, cheeky, mischievous, naturally endowing life with a positive spin. While in her tow, she is my passport to the cliques and huddles of girls; to enlightenment about boys, dolls and the latest fads.

Marbles are the current playground rage, with girl-boy challenges welcomed, but their level of skill costs me dearly, capturing my favourite tors. Across the playground variations of hopscotch are also popular, and chalk grids scribble their progress across the asphalt. However, none of these old favourites are a match for the latest fad of all, even traditional skipping ropes are cast aside for Chinese elastic. The town’s two haberdasheries struggle to supply materials as we jump and kick our way through demanding levels of the game.

Within the classroom, clandestine crochet and knitting classes evolve beneath desks, first with fingers and then on four nails through a cotton reel. Finally, as shortened knitting needles proliferate, the risk of our conduct is half the fun. Our teacher suspects but cannot nail the furtive fidgeting of our flourishing cottage industry. From scraps of yarn we create samples squares and dolls clothes, swapping lengths of colourful, coveted wool like cards, and admire our efforts at lunchtime and recess.

In third term there is a rash of romance. A clever origami device determines developments and children cluster in the school yard, while matchmakers ply their trade. Beneath a series of folded corners such tempters as ‘love’, ‘hate’, ‘marriage’ and ‘engagement’ are revealed. On others, the names of boys and girls are inscribed, threading prospective relationships. Feverish note-passing develops, and I am a star. As an avid student of non-fiction, I’ve discovered books of encoding, and teach simple hieroglyphics to my friends. Soon, indecipherable notes defy identification. The wheels of gossip churn, frustrating Mr Wellman, as our excitement disrupts his lessons.

One day, his stern questions and accusations produce a ripple of stifled giggles. He becomes quite cross and orders suspects to write lines on the board: ‘I must not pass notes in class’, a hundred times. I have my turn.
But the flurry of notes continues unabated, and Denise maintains that a boy on the other side of the room likes me.
‘He keeps lookin’ at you!’ she insists.
I find this disturbing. ‘Why would he do that?’ But Denise is already busy. Another flurry confirms he is keen on me.
‘So what do I do now?’ I ask, quite unprepared.
‘Tell ‘im you like him back,’ Denise advises, her eyes rolling in disbelief.
Against my better judgement I reply, declaring cryptically to John that I like him, too. Personally, I’m quite unsure, and anxiously watch the passage of the note across the classroom to my admirer. As he opens it and deciphers the spidery symbols, he blushes, and so do I.

‘Righto!’ Mr Wellman senses the distraction. ‘Seeing you’re so confident with this short division that you have time for other activities, I’ll give you the test now,’ he declares, tapping the table menacingly with the end of the blackboard ruler.
‘Clear your desks. Pen and a ruler, only!’
Shuffling follows as he walks down each aisle, distributing sheets of lined paper to each student. We sit in silence, watching him write six sums across the blackboard. Each requires the skills of multiplication and division, shaky ground for me. A wave of panic sweeps in. I can’t even remember how to set the sums out on the page. When time is up, Mr Wellman instructs us to write our names on our worksheets, and then he marches down each aisle to collect them. There is a communal sigh of relief when he straightens the pile and puts them in his briefcase for later.

After roll call the next morning, we settle at our desks ready for spelling and reading. We each have our own reading binder in which we place monthly supplements. Each issue of the bulletin contains short stories, topical articles, a quiz, poems and a new song. We learn the song via radio broadcasts especially designed to support the reader. Today Mr Wellman selects students to read a paragraph or two, depending on their ability. It is a story about a drover’s family. There is a snake in their house. While I read to myself confidently, reading aloud is another matter. I trip over words, run out of breath during phrases, trembling so hard that the reader shakes.

Arithmetic is next.

Mr Wellman drives forty-five minutes from Warrnambool each day, and always does his homework. Already we can sense his displeasure at the results of yesterday’s impromptu test. He calls us up to his table individually, to receive our corrected pages. The first students earn his praise; as it happens, they are bright and popular kids, who find schoolwork easy. Tall and stylish, even in their grey uniforms, they radiate a sense of confidence and vitality that eludes me. I am lost in this thought when my name is called.

‘Joanna!’ Mr Wellman calls again, very displeased.
I rise and walk to the front of the class. There are red marks all over my work. He hands me the page. I glance at the angry crosses against four of the sums.
‘You can do better than that,’ he accuses. His eyes are hard and his mouth forms a disparagingly thin line. ‘Go and sit down!’

Dismissed, I return to my desk. The class is silent, quietly fearful now of something beyond my experience. All eyes are upon me and I blush with shame, sliding back into my seat. Other names are called in the same monotone, and students are admonished. Even Denise manages a poor result. Degrees of praise or rebuke continue until all the pages are returned.

Then, quite unexpectedly, Mr Wellman stands at his desk, leaning forward on his fingertips, and launches into a tirade of allegations. I am shaken. I have never seen an adult so angry before. We tense beneath accusations of time wasting, note passing and fiddling under desks.

‘I’ll confiscate any knitting, any dolls’ clothes or any other rubbish you children peddle while wasting my time,’ he declares. Referring to a list on his table, he calls three children back up to see him: a boy, Denise and me.

As we file up to his table, he opens the draw. A leather strap is kept there. In turn, he orders each of us to place our left hand out in front, palm up. Too soon it is my turn. I stand obediently, presenting my palm as he raises the strap over his shoulder. Time seems to slow and I find myself studying his face: the arch of his eyebrows, the wrinkles above them, the set of his jaw, and a fleck of saliva on his chin. His arm comes down hard, the strap striking with an angry snap that leaves me breathless for a moment. But my gaze never leaves his face.

Finally he looks up, his brown eyes like buttons, teddy bear’s eyes. I read disappointment and hurt, not the anger and malice I expect. My hand smarts. His arm rises and the strap falls again with an icy sting.
‘Right,’ he says, dismissing me.
Rarely smacked at home, this punishment seems horrendous, leaving me numb, shocked. My ears buzz. I don’t remember returning to my seat. I fight tears, angry at the cruelty of my punishment. I clench and open my throbbing hand.

With solemnity, the class readies for our lesson. I move like an automaton, fixed upon the injustice of my punishment. I have seen students sent to the principal’s office for a caning after major offences, and I recall Mr Wellman giving a couple of boys the strap, but never out of anger and certainly not for poor results in a test. But I cannot forget the disappointment in his eyes. As if he trying to help me, saying: ‘Snap out of it! Stop wasting your time and years!’ Denise glances sideways to check on me. The strap is not new to her, but she senses it is for me.
‘I’m okay,’ I tell her, appreciating her concern. I reach for my books.

After school Nick and I wait for mum beneath the oak tree. As I peel acorns, I tell him what transpired this morning.
‘Dumb bastard!’ he spits. ‘You can’t belt kids for getting sums wrong.’
‘Well he did. And Denise.’
‘It’s not right. Are you gonna tell mum?’
‘Dunno. Probably. But I don’t want her making more complaints.’ I drop-kick an acorn. ‘I’ve had enough of being shunted from school to school. I’ll deal with this myself.’
‘Whatever,’ he growls, spoiling for a reason to defend me.

Mr Wellman walks to his pale green sedan. It’s an old vehicle, but well maintained.
‘Heard his wife’s sick,’ says Nick, measuring the impact of his news. ‘He works here to pay the bills. Mean old bastard.’
I’m silent, preferring the invisibility of a loser, waiting for her tardy mother. I inspect moss and fissures on the oak trunk until I hear his car pull out, heading west up the highway. Nick wanders over to the hedge, searching for spiders.

The quiet is welcome and I think about this morning, and of Denise. Ahead of me in the line, she barely flinched when the strap came down. I respect her courage, and while her humour is like a salve to my seriousness, too much of her can be irritating. Perhaps her distractions are part of my problem in coming to grips with arithmetic. I value friends like her, but there are others, kids interested in a bigger world beyond boys and gossip. I miss Stanley.

Eventually mum arrives, offering no excuse or apology. But, when I mention my strapping, she is furious, and slows to turn the car around, to head straight for the principal’s house.
‘No mum!’ I’m adamant.
‘But this sort of thing can’t go on!’
‘No…I think I deserved it,’ I admit.
‘What do you mean?’ Mum pulls up beside the road.
‘Well. I’ve been wasting time like he said, messing around. And I think that’s what he was getting at.’
‘With a strapping? Nonsense!’
‘Well, I prefer to deal with it my way, mum.’
‘Never the less, I’m damned well going to report it. I mean, good lord, Jo! What punishment do you get for setting the school on fire if you get the strap for bad arithmetic?’
I concede the point with a tilt of my head. ‘Still, I don’t want you reporting it. It will make trouble for me. More trouble than it’s worth.’
‘And leave that man free to bully and hit other children!’ Mum’s indignant now.
‘Well, that’s not how I see it. Like I said, Denise and I have been messing around. I want it left at that.’

We resume the journey in silence.

The matter of Mr Wellman’s discipline is purposefully forgotten and I knuckle down to serious school work. Soon, long division is conquered and we begin geometry. Arithmetic becomes fun and begins to make sense.

Perhaps, aware of his excess zeal, Mr Wellman rewards our efforts. Last thing, each afternoon for the remainder of the year, we sit in silent, rapt attention as he reads to us from a book called The Overloaded Ark. It brings National Geographics right into my classroom. At last my school is keeping pace, and this encouragement inspires me to press on, refreshed.

Upon exploring dad’s bookshelf, I discover an identical copy of my teacher’s book, and secretly re-read each day’s portion, never sneaking ahead.

After months of complaints about lateness to and from school, mum inquires about a new bus route. School buses deliver children to any of the three schools: catholic, primary or high. When plans for the new route flag, mum organises our connection with an existing bus service at the end of Racecourse Road. We ride to an old cottage by the railway line, rest our bikes on the picket fence and meet the bus. On warmer days we ride all the way to school, and this allows us to meet friends afterwards, walking home with them, before continuing our ride to the farm. The new arrangement suits mum, too, reducing stress and providing time for her hobbies.

One spring day, as I arrive home from school, I glance back along the road. A movement catches my eye, a cyclist in the distance. I shrug it off, assuming it’s one of the neighbours. Later, as I stand at the kitchen bench, mixing Milo in cold milk, there is a timid knock on the back door. This is a rare event. Everyone pauses, unsure what to do. At last Nick strides over to see who’s there and, after a few mumblings, calls me over.
‘It’s for you.’ There’s a smirk on his face.

I put down my glass, and head for the door. Nick chuckles as we pass. I am confronted by a very shy John, the boy who writes notes in class.
‘What are you doing here?’ I ask, incredulous that he’s turned up without invitation.
‘Just thought I’d come for a visit,’ he replies, his eyes drilling the floor.
‘Oh,’ is all I can manage, unimpressed. I don’t like him that much, after all.
‘Well invite him in, Jo,’ mum calls from the kitchen, worded up by Nick.
‘Um, yeah. Come on in.’ He nods gratefully and steps passed me into the kitchen.

‘G’day Mrs Clarke,’ he speaks politely.
Geez, he’s certainly no chicken. I introduce him to my family as a friend from my class. I’m embarrassed, and keen to get back to my Milo, so I ask if he’d like one.
‘Um, yes please,’ he replies, brightening.
‘Sit down, dear.’ Mum clears her knitting back from grandad’s vacant chair, indicating a spot for him.
‘Thanks, Mrs Clarke,’ and he sits, looking rather pleased with himself.

Nick is seated beside him, and gives him the once over from the corner of his eye. He can’t help smirking when he asks, ‘So what brings you out of town, John?’
‘Oh, I just thought I’d come and visit Jo. Have a bit of time after school.’
‘And how’d you know where we live?’ Nick enquires.
Unaware Nick is several steps ahead of him, John replies: ‘Oh. I just followed the bus. I saw you both get off and I followed to where you turned in.’

I hand him a rich Milo mix, my eyebrows raised. It is my unimpressed look, but John misses it. Nick doesn’t and has trouble keeping the grin off his face.

‘So you followed us, did you?’ Nick’s examination continues.
John flips his dark fringe back with nervous, freckly fingers. ‘Yeah.’
‘Long ride for a town kid.’
‘Yeah, it is quite a way.’ He’s warming to the conversation, and leans back comfortably, his eyes darting about inquisitively as he speaks.
‘And you’ll have to ride all the way back again, up Terang hill?’ Nick plays him like Pirate does with a mouse.
‘Yep. S’pose I do.’ He sounds a bit deflated.
‘Head wind, too,’ Nick persists.
‘Oh? I didn’t realise that.’

I must decide on some way to let John know, in no uncertain terms, never to do this again. I clear the table as he spoons the last morsels of chocolate from his glass.
‘Well, John,’ I say. ‘We can’t sit around here all day. Got chores to do.’
‘Why don’t you show him around the farm, dear?’ mum suggests helpfully.
‘Yeah,’ I agree. ‘Good idea.’ I catch Nick’s eye. He knows I have a plan and smirks encouragingly.
‘Come on. I’ll take you on the grand tour.’
As John follows me out to the veranda, he calls to mum, ‘Thanks for afternoon tea, Mrs Clarke.’
Damn, I wonder. ‘Where does he get those manners? Most boys I know are quite uncouth.
‘This way,’ I tell him, slipping on my boots. We head for the back gate where I notice his bike parked beside mine. Upstart! I’ll get Denise for this.

Over at the sheds, I set out to impress him with our first stop. I’m assuming he’s never lived on a farm, so the windmill will offer an opportunity to test his courage. He follows me around the tower to a narrow metal ladder fitted to the tower.
‘Scared of heights?’I suggest hopefully, my eyes on the mill-wheel.
‘Nuh. Why?’
I shrug, indicating the rungs he should climb.
He stands back. ‘You first,’ he offers, politely.
‘In my school tunic? No chance!’
He blushes, reaching for the step, and makes his way up, pausing at each section to look up and around. He arrives at the platform.
‘Up here?’ he asks.
‘Yep. Just be careful of the fan.’ There is a stiff breeze and the windmill trembles as the piston draws water from the well to the tank beside us.

We sit together on the platform, appreciating the view. Through the turning blades we see Terang and Mt Noorat, both about two miles away. The panorama thrills him.
‘You’re lucky to have all this to play on,’ he says, making no attempt to hide his envy. ‘We’ve only got the back yard at our place.’
‘Yeah. It is a big playground,’ I concede, ‘but, we have to travel further for shops and the pool. And there’s more work to do.’
I ease back onto the steps and descend the tower. John follows, confident, now.
‘So what’s next?’ he asks eagerly.
As we return to the path, I point out, ‘Work shop, garage, harness room, stable,’ listing them as we pass each doorway.
‘Stable? Why do you have a stable?’
‘Horses were housed there in my grandad’s day. You know: in the old days when people worked and travelled by horse and cart?’

We enter the stable and I open the door to the granary. ‘No lighting here, see?’ I stand aside, tempting him to enter and take a look. ‘There are mice. Can you smell them?’ I haven’t the heart to lock him in here. Something a little less traumatic, perhaps.
He sniffs the air. ‘What’s in the bags?’
‘Wheat, bran and shell grit for the chooks, bran and oats for the cows and horses, and potatoes for us. They keep better where it’s dry and dark,’ I add.
Reaching down, I grab a silver scoop and fill it with wheat. As we head out I call, ‘Chook, chook, chook, chooky!’ Not a hen in sight. ‘Darn. They’re back at the chook house already. I pour the wheat into the band of my school jumper, and lead John into daylight.
‘Will have to feed the chooks,’ I explain, ‘but first, let’s look at the dairy and meet Husso, the vicious cattle dog.’
John seems a little startled but follows politely.

On the way we pass the enclosed haystack and I pull the huge roller door open, revealing the solid wall of golden hay.
‘We use the other stack first,’ I explain, pointing out the other enclosure. ‘We climb up in here and make tunnels. Good fun on rainy days.’ John shakes his head in disbelief, saying he’s never seen so much hay before and can’t imagine how much fun we have.
We continue the tour, passing the calf pens where a couple of poddy calves await their evening meal. I pause while John pats the nearest one. It tips its head and sucks his fingers hungrily. He laughs with delight.
‘Do you ever keep one as a pet?’
‘Nah. They grow up too quickly and dad sells them. Not worth the heartbreak of getting too attached.’ He nods, patting another calf that butts its head through the bales.

As we walk round the big cypress, I tell John, ‘This tree is great for climbing because of its broad trunk and low branches.’
He peers up at the mass of green leaves and the network of limbs.
‘And over here’s the wood heap. We take turns chopping firewood. The machinery shed is over there: plough, rake, harrows, fertiliser spreader and tractor.’ I don’t offer to take him over as I know what boys are like in such places.
Husso comes out of his kennel to greet us, wagging his tail joyfully.
‘And this is our vicious farm dog, Husso.’
John laughs and gives the dog a good raking before I call him across to the dairy. There I gloss over the diesel engine, nipping curiosity in the bud.
‘What’s it used for?’ he asks, puzzled by the complexity of pulleys and belts.
‘It provides power for the saw bench and the dairy, too, if there’s no electricity. Makes an awful din.’
Lifting the lid of a large wooden box, I scoop up a handful of buttermilk.
‘Here. Try some.’
He helps himself, and licks the treat from his hand as I show him the washroom and the cool room. ‘Since dad sold up the dairy, it’s not used much anymore,’ I explain. John peers round the rough cement walls and through a poky window, gasping as he spots a sudden drop to the floor below where the ute is parked.
‘Nice and cool here in the summer,’ I add.

We enter the dairy where dad hand-milks the second of three house cows, his forehead pressed against the jersey’s flank. He rises from his three-legged stool to meet John. I explain why he’s here. Dad isn’t surprised and, if he’s amused, doesn’t show it.
‘G’day, Mr Clarke. I’ve never seen a cow milked before.’
Dad smiles in welcome. ‘Hello John. You’re one of Jo’s classmates, eh?’
‘Yep. I rode out to pay a visit, Mr Clarke. I hope it’s okay?’
‘Of course. And she’s taking you on a tour I see?’
‘That’s right.’ John grins now, regaining his composure.

We climb the fence for a better view of the cattle yards and I explain what each part’s used for: where the cattle enter, are sorted, branded and inoculated. Then I point out part of the herd, half a mile away, over the hawthorn hedges. Following my lead, he hops down and we troop out of the dairy and up to the horse paddock. Two ponies stand at the gate.

‘Aah, I’ve forgotten something. Wait here a moment,’ I instruct, clutching my improvised wheat pouch. I nip into the workshop and return with two withered apples, handing them to John. ‘For the ponies,’ I explain. ‘Do you know how to feed horses?’
‘Yeah. There’s a horse in an empty paddock in our street. Sometimes we take it handfuls of fresh grass.’

Mitzi lifts her head over the gate and John proffers an apple on the palm of his hand.
‘This is Mitzi,’ I tell him, as the pony lifts her grey, velvety top lip over the apple, taking the whole fruit in her jaws and crunching it sloppily. ‘And that’s, Tubby.’ I reach to comb his tousled main but he dodges, wild-eyed. I offer an apple as a brief truce. He munches loudly.
‘We’re not exactly the best of friends,’ I explain. ‘He’s tossed me off once too often.’
I climb over the trough. ‘Come on.’ I point to the water. ‘There are tadpoles in here, see?’ Fleeting shadows dart beneath drifts of waterweed.
We head for the chook house.

‘Chook, chook, chook, chooky,’ I call again, and this time four white hens step out from beneath the eucalyptus saplings and slip under the fence. I scatter the wheat and we watch as they peck the grains hungrily, beaks tapping, heads jerking and red crops flopping quaintly. I croon to them with soft chooky noises.
John laughs. ‘That’s good! Where’d you learn that?’
I nod at the chooks. ‘From them. I just listen and say it back. We talk that way.’
‘Ha!’ He’s intrigued. ‘That’s really amazing. Do it some more.’
I oblige, crooning and clucking again.

Brushing wheat husks from my jumper, I move on. ‘Better check for eggs.’ I lead him to the chook house and slide back the bolt on the door. Standing aside I wait for him to enter. Musty chook poo smells waft over us.
‘They roost here.’ I point to three perches, crossing the room from wall to wall. ‘This is where I sit and learn their talk. There’s another part,’ I indicate an adjacent room. ‘It’s for broody hens and roosters. But we don’t use it any more.’
John turns, spotting the laying boxes. ‘Two eggs,’ he smiles.
‘Gather them if you like.’ He hands me the first and, as he reaches for the second, I step outside and close the door, drawing the bolt across. ‘I’ll just take this over to the house. You can keep that one,’ I call, and walk away, unsure what to expect. There’s no way he can get out except by breaking the door down and I know he wouldn’t dare, especially considering his good manners. Unlike mine.

I grin with satisfaction as I pass the chestnut tree and stepping through the fence. There is only silence from the chook shed.

Shaking off my boots, I enter the kitchen, and place my egg in the pantry cupboard. Then I walk up to my room to change out of my uniform.
‘Where’s John?’ mum calls from the sewing room.
I stick my head out the bedroom door. ‘In the chook house.’
‘Oh?’ She sounds puzzled. ‘He’ll have to get going soon or it’ll be dark before he gets home.’
‘Mmm, ‘I’ll tell him.’
‘What’s he doing in the chook house?’
‘Communing with the chooks, I guess.’
‘Oh.’ Mum frowns. ‘That’s a bit odd. More the sort of thing you would do.’ She continues to unpick a row of tacking. ‘You can’t just leave him there.’
I laugh. ‘Suppose not.’ I reappear, dressed in brown corduroy slacks and a hand-knitted green jumper, pulling at the collar of my school shirt as I approach.
‘I locked him in there,’ I admit sheepishly.
‘What?’ Mum’s indignant. ‘You’d better be joking.’
She puts down her sewing, unsure whether to believe me or not. She takes off her glasses. ‘You didn’t really lock him in the chook house?’
She stares at me in disbelief. ‘Why?’
‘To let him know I don’t want him chasing me home from school anymore.’
‘Well. Couldn’t you just tell him instead of locking him up?’
I thought for a moment. ‘No. This way is better. It’s more…subtle.’
‘Well, you go and let him out. Straight away, please!’
‘Going to. Just wanted to change first,’ I reply calmly. ‘He should have the message by now.’

I return to the chook house. With their supper over, the hens mill about a small trapdoor at the rear of their enclosure, unsure whether to enter or not. I guess John might have tried to get out of there. Unsuccessfully, of course. I had tried myself a few years ago when Nick locked me in during a game of hidey. Through the meshed window I spy John roosting, with a rather doleful expression.
‘You’re still there.’ I open the door and he steps out. ‘Peaceful spot, isn’t it?’ I remark, bolting the door. He is silent. ‘Thought I’d change while I was putting that egg away.’
‘You locked me in,’ he accuses.
I regard him keenly and nod. ‘Yes. I did.’

He doesn’t ask why and I offer neither explanation nor apology. We proceed as if nothing has happened. I point out the mound of cut tree branches in the middle of the horse paddock, ready for burning.
‘Are you keeping it for Guy Fawkes Night?’ he asks.
‘No, not that one.’ I reply, regarding the stack ruefully. ‘We used to. Not allowed to burn-off now. Fire restrictions.’
‘Oh, yeah,’ he remembers.
‘Well, mum says you’d better head off before it gets too late. Does your mum know you’re out here?’
‘Yeah. Well, kind of. She knows I came to visit you but she doesn’t know it’s out of town.’
‘Do you want to ring her to say you’ll be late?’
‘Nah. I’ll be right, thanks.’ He has lost his brightness and wanders after me to the house.

We stand by his bike.
‘Well, thanks for the Milo and the tour and everything.’
‘My pleasure,’ I chuckle. ‘You’re too polite, John.’
‘I’m trying to impress.’
‘Yeah, so I see. No need to go to so much trouble again, okay?’
He gets the message. ‘Yeah. Sorry. It was just a spur of the moment thing.’
‘Yeah? Reckon Denise put you up to it, didn’t she?’
‘I must admit she suggested it.’
‘Don’t be such a pawn next time. She meddles where she shouldn’t. I wouldn’t believe too much of what she says if I were you. It’s all just a game to her.’
‘Yeah,’ John sounds deflated.
‘Cheer up! There’s school tomorrow and you’ve got a head wind all the way home!’
‘Thanks for that,’ he says, untruthfully, and climbs on his bike. ‘You’ve got a nice home, Jo.’
‘Yeah, that’s something I do appreciate.’ I smile, waving as he sets off.

* * *

After visiting friends at weekends, I begin to envy their biggest luxury: a television set. Even riding up the main street of town, spidery antennas crowd the skies, on tile and tin rooves alike, yet there is no mention of TV in our home. One day I put the question to mum. She handballs it straight to dad.
‘We’ll see,’ he replies, his face offering no clue of what or when.

Sometimes I walk home after school with Liz. She’s a freckly red-head girl, with thick glasses. We sit in her cosy lounge room watching the Adventures of Superman, Felix the Cat, Tarzan and Robin Hood, while her mum plies us with cake and drinks. The technical wonders of this magical, wooden box never cease to intrigue me. How do pictures come in through the air? They must be in very small bits, I reason, because otherwise you’d see them.

We first saw TV last summer, when mum took us with her on a two-week holiday to Blackrock, a bay-side Melbourne suburb. There we house-sat for a family holidaying elsewhere. After mum figured out how to operate the set, we spent hours in front of it, barely communicating with each other, our eyes glued to the black and white screen. Because of its allure, the beach across the road was of little interest.

Later in the year we visited dad’s cousins in Warrnambool, where Nick and I were invited to sit down in front of their new TV set to watch a western. We huddled close to screen, and remained oblivious to grownup chatter that would once have driven us out into the cold. Even the green and yellow budgie missed our attention and, further afield, bounty in the sheds remained unplundered as we sat blissfully transfixed. At dusk, we were virtually ejected, protesting, dragged onto the veranda to suffer wet kisses and endearments from the crowd of oldies before the drive home.

The breakthrough occurred when Nick and I made a concerted and well-rehearsed plea, emphasising the fact that television offered inestimable educational resources that we were deprived of. Mum was easily convinced: the resource argument won her immediately but, it was only then that we recognised the real problem: who would pay for it?

Upon overhearing a recent argument, we learned how our parents maintain separate finances: mum meeting all our expenses from her savings and share portfolio, and dad returning his income to the farm. The argument began over who would pay Nick’s school fees. The expense of a television followed.

Mid-way through the summer holidays dad agrees to buy the television, and promises to order a set from Mr Fischman, the town’s electrical retailer. A week before school we badger him again.
‘Well, I chose a model, placed an order, and he said he’ll give us a call when it comes in,’ dad declares, savouring the last spoonful of syrup from his golden dumplings. But this doesn’t satisfy me at all.
‘It’s almost autumn, dad!’ His jaw stiffens.
‘He said he would phone, Jo,’ mum cautions, ‘And we just have to wait. How reliable is he, Merlin?’ Mum knows the electrician is overworked, disorganised and keeps people waiting. ‘Perhaps I could phone his wife tomorrow and see how the order’s going,’ she offers.
‘If you want to, Lola, but I think you’ll find we have to wait like everyone else.’

He’s right. Each day, we return from the pool or paddocks, hoping to see his van at the house, but to no avail, and I’ve pretty much given up waiting for Mr Fischman.
‘He’s probably on holidays,’ is dad’s theory. ‘I think they go to Peterborough for the summer.’
Mum peers at me from over the newspaper, where she checks share listings. ‘There’s no sense in phoning him if he’s not there, dear.’
‘But you don’t know he’s not there until you phone.’
Mum lowers the paper. One look is enough and I fall silent.
‘There’s TV at college,’ Nick taunts.
‘I know that,’ I reply dryly. ‘I was dragged round on the school tour, remember?’

Mum lowers her paper again, glaring at me. Silence returns. At least when the TV does come I won’t have to argue with Nick about what we watch. The thought is comforting. And I’ll have the whole place to myself in his absence. I smile and wipe remnants of jam onto my last crust, peering over at grandad. His face delivers a silent lecture on spitefulness and patience and I accept the gentle reprimand with a blink.

Nick has settled into boarding school and I’ve returned to school, remaining in grade four for a second year. At the end last term I had gone to see the principal, requesting permission to stay down. He was well aware of my struggles, and even overrode mum’s objections, saying I was young for the year and would have a better foundation at the end of it.

My new, female teacher seems gentle after the gruffness of Mr Wellman. She encourages social aspects of a good education, and participation in sport. Until now I’ve avoided team games because I find them difficult to master. I loathe basketball, preferring boys games like footy and cricket, or rounders. The range is limited for girls.

My new friend Elizabeth is quiet and sensible, refreshing after last year’s dislocation. She’s keen on basketball and convinces me to sign up. New friends improve my confidence, and with acquaintances from grade five, I have senior status in our class. My greatest love is music and I know every popular song on the radio, joining huddles of girls singing them at recess and lunchtimes.

My repertoire expands further when dad presents me with a pocket-sized transistor radio.
‘I was in the army disposals getting some boots,’ he explains, ‘and they had these on special. Thought you and Nick could do with one each.’
‘Thanks so much, dad.’ I’m touched by his thoughtfulness, and of gifting something we really appreciate. Now, instead of singing myself to sleep every night, I hide my trannie under the pillow and listen through the earpiece. Even mum thinks I’m sleeping soundly. But the late nights leave me uncharacteristically sleepy in the morning. I seem to have developed an exceptional memory for carrying tunes, and any lyrics that stick to them. The radio brings extraordinary changes to my life, filling long wet days with a whole world of sumptuous entertainment.

In autumn I raise the topic of television again and, this time, dad responds, eliciting a delivery date from the electrician. ‘He’ll be here on Friday afternoon.’ It’s already Wednesday, and I break the remaining days into chunks of school and home activities, knowing no matter how boring or slowly the time passes, my school week will end with a television in our sitting room. That’s all that matters. My friends are thrilled with the news; ours is one of the last families to get a set.

On Friday I race out of school and straight onto the bus. A delay at the catholic school really chafes and, after disembarking at the railway cottage, I grab my bike and sprint home, making the best of a tail wind.

As I approach the house, my heart sinks. There’s no antenna adorning the roof and no van in the driveway.
‘Where is he,’ I demand, entering the house, realising there’s little chance he’ll come any later than this.
‘Don’t know, dear.’ Mum sips her tea.
‘Must have been held up at another job,’ dad suggests.
‘Humph!’ I’m unimpressed, and make a rich Milo. Seated at the table I browse through the radio and TV guide for what I will miss this weekend.

With the chooks fed, I ride up and down the driveway till dusk, hoping Mr Fischman might come after all, and spend the evening read National Geographics until bedtime: their pictures the next best thing to television, to my window on the world.

I spend Saturday skulking round the farm and loafing indoors. Even my trannie provides little distraction, offering only footy broadcasts and horse racing. When someone says they’re coming on a certain day at a certain time they should come, I rationalise, kicking the floor rug straight. Or at least have the courtesy to phone! My hopes are pinned on Monday. Surely he’ll come then.

After lunch the phone rings. Sometimes Elizabeth calls, so I listen intently for mum’s answer, but the conversation is brief: something about Sunday.
‘Oh, good. Another afternoon tea party. Laa-dee-bloody-dah!’ I mutter.
At afternoon tea everyone seems quiet and the break is brief, undelayed by conversation. Dad gets up to prepare for milking.
‘Oh, Merlin,’ mum calls. ‘Carl Fischman phoned.’
‘What!’ I glare at her. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Didn’t know where you were, dear.’
‘What’d he say then?’ I demand, rather rudely.
‘He apologises for not coming yesterday and has offered to come tomorrow afternoon.’
‘But that’s Sunday!’
‘Maybe he’s Jewish,’ dad suggests.
‘More likely overworked,’ says mum.

My transformation is miraculous. I stack the dishes, humming as I rattle the soap caddy, creating a luxurious mound of bubbles. Hope tingles in my fingers and I looking out at the evening, through my own reflection in the window. Don’t get your hopes up girl, I warn myself. He still may not come.

After dinner I poke my head in through the sitting room doorway. Mum sits by one side of the fire, knitting and listening to the radio, while dad reads the paper.
‘I’m just going for a bike ride,’ I tell them.
‘All right, dear. Rug up,’ mum reminds me.

Before Sunday morning church, mum announces she is staying home. ‘The dinner won’t cook itself, will it?’ Dad and I head off. On the return journey he lets me drive the car up the lane. I need a cushion at my back in order to reach the pedals. After the dinner, I slip out to my cubby and watch for Mr Fischman through the window. But, as the afternoon progresses, I became more and more despondent. The restlessness carries me over to the old gum tree paddock. From there I can see both the lane and road. I walk through tall, tired grass where dragonflies had rested only months before, and arrive at my favourite pine tree.

The limb I choose is set low, bending down over the grass before curving up again, ending with tufts of pine needles. Part of the branch is a well-polished backscratcher for cattle. The branch sinks beneath my weight and I kick off from the ground, riding the limb like a swing. The kick-swing rhythm reminds me of a Dusty Springfield song and I wonder, as I stare blankly up the road, if other people hear music in their heads, like me.

As the afternoon draws to a close, my spirits waver. I’m tired of seesawing, almost seedy, and there is no sign of our TV. Disappointed, I shuffle back to the house, and warm my hands at the stove before joining mum and dad for tea in the sitting room. I help myself to a piece of date loaf, savouring the sticky sweetness, and oily crunch of walnuts.
‘No sign of Mr Fischman, mum,’ I state the obvious.
Mum looks up from her knitting. ‘No. Must be held up somewhere. I’m sure he’ll turn up eventually.’
‘You been waiting for him, Jo?’ dad asks, looking up from his paper.
‘Yep. Over near the lane.’

He leans forward and prods the fire with a new log. ‘Must be pretty cold.’
A dog barks plaintively, a sound that is strangely familiar.
‘If you’re finished with the auto-tray I’ll take it out,’ I offer to mum.
‘Thanks, dear. Bring in some more firewood, please? Just enough to tide us over.’

I push the tray gently, its tiny wheels bumping over the edge of the carpet onto the lino, setting the crockery tinkling. Once in the kitchen, I realise the barking dog is Husso, and I peer out the window. There’s an old, white van parked in the back yard. I open the door just as Mr Fischman reaches out to knock.

He accepts mum’s offer of a cuppa, and I hover impatiently, waiting to get started with whatever it is he has to do. In time, dad levers himself up, stiff from a rare day of relaxation. He leads the electrician outside and opens the driveway gate. The van pulls in alongside the veranda. After helping carry the TV inside, dad heads off for milking.

Mr Fischman eases an extension ladder against the veranda roof and unpacks pieces of the antenna, and a roll of cable. I can’t bear the excitement, and return to the kitchen, cleaning up ready for supper, darting into the sitting room at regular intervals to view the progress. By dusk, the aerial is installed and dad perches astride the window, while Mr Fischman adjusts the antenna for reception. After clipping the cable to the wall, he sets off home, exhausted after seven days on the job.

I help mum prepare supper and we gather before the new TV. There are three channels and dad takes the role of program manager. We sit entranced at Red Skelton, who presents the first variety show we’ve ever seen together.

Mum herds me off at bedtime. Settled cosily, I can just detect the voices of Americans, a sound that is new to our house; exotic, just like the world out there should be.

In the morning I regale my friends with details of the saga. At last I can join conversations about programs that have influenced their lives over the past few years. I feel connected to the bigger world, a witness to the broader picture, and a beneficiary of the latest technology. It will change my life; I am sure of it, and for the better.

My storybooks gather dust and National Geographics return to the damp shelter of the cubby. A tide of pictures, pop stars and movie legends, adorn my faded wallpaper walls. I am aware of the influence that small, grainy screen, brings, widening the doors of my curiosity, and dulling the edge of my hunger.

From famine to politics, that little screen has brought the world so much closer. As advertising feeds my appetite for things, the spell of television creates its own rationale. Ed Sullivan brings the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas. Four Corners brings wars to our home, giving faces to its barbarity, heroes and villains. Society challenges, and so do I.