Archive for January, 2011


 

 

 

 

 

After viewing the series ‘COSMOS’ in the early 80’s, I was so inspired, I read the book, also, in order to review much of the evocative and appealing language of the series.

 

As a result, I have attempted to capture the essence of my favourite episodes in the following poem/lyric.

 

So, this is an attempt to replicate my experience with an adaptation of the message that Mr Sagan left us, with the following song, self-penned in 1982.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHO SPEAKS FOR EARTH?

Inspired by Ch 13 of ‘Cosmos’ by Carl Sagan

We know who speaks for each and every nation. We know their names and faces and their worth. But who speaks for the human population – And all creation? Who speaks for Earth?

Our planet, infinitesimal and lonely, Of dust and vapor, now an ancient sphere. A crescent blue, our home amidst a universe of stars, An oasis of life so very dear.

We live in a planetary garden, And created from its dust we live and die. A single soul, though many, in a sacred unity: Walking with the same feet, Loving with the same heart. Seeing, hearing, learning, sharing, Working, thinking, always caring – We each have our very special part To make this world of unity complete. A convocation of the mind and heart: A place where gods and man can always meet.

We must educate our governments and leaders. Impress on them the need to talk and learn. As one people, our future lies within our hearts and minds. We must overcome suspicion, and trust and share in turn. There are many different ways of being human. And ways to use the knowledge we’ve refined. But to know we can prevent a holocaust yet fail to try: The agony that fills the final moments as we die…

If we fail, no more questions, no more answers. Never more the memory of love, a child. No more voyages to the moon, no descendants to be proud, No more songs for planet Earth if she has died.

We live in a planetary garden And created from its dust we live and die. A single soul, though many, in a sacred unity: Walking with the same feet, Loving with the same heart. Seeing, hearing, learning, sharing, Working, thinking, always caring – We each have our very special part To make this world of unity complete. A convocation of the mind and heart: A place where gods and man can always meet.

We speak for earth with every prayer and action. We speak for Earth in overcoming greed. We speak for Earth by seeking consultation; Communicating everybody’s needs. Each sapling in the forest re-established; Every child we educate from birth, And with every act of mercy and compassion In every nation – we speak for Earth.

Let every nation Speak for Earth….  and listen

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Beth’s brother and I are on a double date in the back of Nick’s car at the drive-in. He has highlights in his hair and resembles my cool surfer idols. While he attempts to get me drunk and screwable, I extract from him the brand-name of the blonding product he has used and some general instructions on how to apply it. He falls asleep against my shoulder, still clenching his can of vodka and orange.

In order to complete my year of sand, surf and high school, I’m up early to blonde my hair. However, mum rises earlier than expected and must have detected a bleach odour in the bathroom. She follows the trail, discovering me in bed, sitting in the dark with a plastic bag and towel wrapped over my head.

‘Whatever that is wash it out, now!’ she orders, and leaves my room ahead of any protest. Forgoing a necessary fixative and blue tint, the brassy result is hardly the crowning accessory to my summer tan. Fortunately, mum’s hairdresser applies a brown rinse before my new nickname, Brasso, sticks. I plan my war of attrition. At least at boarding school there will be respite from her dictatorial regime, and I learn that several of my Terang classmates are enrolled at MLC now.

Mum drives me to Melbourne on a hot February Sunday and settles me in at the boarding house. While I unpack, she chats to hovering parents whose younger children run amok along the corridor. I hang my clothes in a tall-boy beside my bed. There are three others sharing the dorm with me, although one will not arrive for several days.

During an earlier visit to the school, mum had coaxed me on a tour. For her, each new corner inspired exclamations of delight and recollection, spawning stories of her old school days. We were introduced to the boarding house staff and Principal before departing for lunch at a nearby shopping centre in Glenferrie Road. Afterwards, I attended the school supplier to be measured and fitted for my uniform.

The quantity of clothing I unpack now seems obscenely extravagant after mum’s scrimping, sewing and knitting all these years. Now, even my underwear is regulation grey. Summer school dresses, socks, stockings, shoes, hat, blazer, a white Sunday dress and gloves for church: all are required for first term. For winter there is a grey woollen skirt, shirts, tie, jumper, woollen stockings, hat and grey gloves. Once all this is packed away there is little space. I fold most of my civvy clothes back in my suitcase.

Following the farewell afternoon tea, mum departs. Unkindly as it seems, I am relieved to see the end of her hovering and team up with my Terang friends to explore the grounds. The boarding house is the original school, set in a formal garden with well-established, shady trees. The main gate faces an arterial intersection, and the traffic is noisy and constant. My dorm is one of half a dozen situated in an additional wing: a grey, functional building, hidden from the road. The dining and living rooms, offices and Principal’s residence fill the ground floor. Borders enter through a side door and climb a broad staircase to our rooms and other facilities branching off the extensive corridors. Later we discover an attic.

Beyond the laundry and maintenance areas below our dorms, cloistered walkways lead on through the entire school, up a series of steps to a new assembly hall, and more classrooms at the rear of an entire urban block. To one side of the cloisters lies a sports oval and, beyond it, the junior school. Along the busy roadside is the library, staff and senior student rooms, tennis courts and the music school mum has spoken of so incessantly.

I stand behind my designated chair at my assigned table, bowing my head as the Lady Superintendent says grace. Once we are seated for dinner, she offers a speech of welcome, particularly to the new boarders, and introduces other members of staff. As the meal is served I begin to appreciate mum’s efforts teaching me dining etiquette, for such courtesies and graces are expected. My company is of mixed age and background and, being shy, I speak hesitantly. The meal is less grand that the formal room suggests.

Following a cup of tea, we are directed to attend a Sunday evening service at the resident chapel, another modern addition to the campus. It is attractive for a modern structure, with vaulted ceilings, its own pipe organ and choir stalls. I am told many old girls return here to be married. Our school chaplain conducts the service, and offers a warm invitation to any who seek the comfort of God’s house, or his services as counsellor and religious instructor. We return to our rooms and prepare for the first day of the academic year.

Regimentation is oppressive. I am accustomed to absolute freedom, a lifestyle unimaginable to my friends. Although the facilities are ample, they lack privacy and are filled with background chatter, unfamiliar smells and noises. At first I crave only peaceful solitude, but once I have comprehended the enormity of my parents’ expectations for my academic life, I have no alternative but to meet them head on, and with all the courage I can muster.

Hundreds of day students attend the college, from prep grade to form six, and borders hail from all over the country; even from overseas. Religious doctrine is part of each day’s routine, with devotions at morning assembly and chapel after our evening meal. There are two services on Sunday, the first at a nearby church, and at our chapel in the evening. There is a tolerance of self-expression, and an environment of spiritual nurturing that I’ve never experienced in secular schools. I find it comforting.

As mum predicted, music is more than a revelrous luxury. I join both chapel and school choirs, eventually performing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at the Melbourne Town Hall. Our music director demands dedication. Because I love music and singing, I see only pleasure in such work. The harmony of our voices recreates the haunting, reverential quality of my childhood, weaving spirit and flesh together, leaving me to shiver in the aura of its majesty.

I spend evenings at the music school, foregoing study to join my friends in their music practice. We jam with guitar, piano and voice. In second term I begin classical guitar lessons, but the music theory confirms an aspect of the language that is as indecipherable as hieroglyphics, and more slippery than algebra. When my teacher discovers I am playing by ear, I admit to her that I am quite lost, musically illiterate, yet desperate to play and sing. Lessons are discontinued and I resume solo practice in spare moments, developing arrangements of new songs.

Academic life is a constant struggle. Brief moments of clarity are clouded by doubt and confusion. First term French is humiliating. My class is well advanced and mock my provincial, Terang accent. I struggle to keep up, let alone understand. Against all advice, I drop the subject and spend that hour in the library researching topics that tease my curiosity. I fall asleep in history classes after late nights of music practice, and grapple with rules of dissection in literature. Social sciences provide some resonance and I try out their new ideologies and concepts.

I begin to understand how my resentment and exile from home have sabotaged my academic future. But it is too late, now, and well beyond my skill to remedy. I decide to take what I want, and allow the fullness of my studies to languish.

While there is much to do within the school grounds on weekends, I prefer walking to the shops. From there I learn that train services provide access to the entire city. On Saturdays I join others for trips to the movies or window shopping. But I loathe the noisy, crowded streets, and navigate nervously from a small street directory, identifying landmarks to secure my way home. I visit the Queen Victoria market, and inhale the taunting aromas from coffee shops and Chinese restaurants. I traverse parks and leafy suburbs by tram, memorising names and numbers in order to overcome my irritating lack of directional sense.

Sharing daily life with other girls has nurtured some positively awareness. After a childhood of cringing and self-loathing, I learn to accept compliments, and follow a healthier diet. By mid-year I have learned to inhabit my space, eliminating shyness. I become more expressive about my choice of style and dress sense. I admit to myself that mum was right: Terang is a far outcry from the cultural hub of this new, cosmopolitan life.

There is nowhere to cycle, space limited to the oval. Running laps is unsatisfying: I miss the twilight solitude of home. I swim in the heated pool, and learn to play squash next door but I sorely miss my long bike rides, the open sky, tree climbing and especially my archery game. On my way to study each evening, I peer at the night sky, hoping for a glimpse of the moon or stars. They hover still, almost drowned by city lights, but wide horizons lie far beyond the walls and rooves of a thousand houses and factories.

Restrictions and curfews refine my ingenuity. I discover new times and ways to sneak outside, and discover dark corners beyond the drone of traffic. While rarely following others over the school walls, I am thwarted during a late night dip in the pool. The boarding house mistress reports me, and neither she nor the principal are impressed, saying so on notes on my report. Confined again, I await Springtime, and perch on sheltered window ledges, watching the wind and rain.

The fortnight of spring holidays seem to shrivel away. My archery and tree climbing are curtailed by blizzardous footy weather. I feel the slide toward despair, and the lateness of spring reflects my school results: well below even my standards. With a supreme effort, I manage to catch up by year’s end. Letters from mum list her unfulfilled dreams and vicarious aspirations for me, but I have no desire to be a prima donnas. Deportment and elocution lessons uncover useful tools, enabling me to camouflage my uncultured and rebellious country ways. I can change my accent, adding grace and intonation to words, embellishing actions to create cosmetic evidence of status and breeding. But my contempt of the superficiality of social class deepens.

* * *

We return to Braim House for a few weeks holiday in January. The sudden freedom is intoxicating. I rise early, fish for breakfast, help around the house and garden until after lunch. I cycle to the east beach, and surf the perfect, turquoise curves until the board guy packs up. On some evenings, I hike to the island, perching on rocks to await the mutton birds. Dad accompanies me once more, pointing out the constellations and planets until fresh winds draw us on round the island. More often than not, he remains on the farm now, as much to avoid the unending tasks mum demands, as to draw upon the tranquillity of the farm.

Each week we return to help him water the gardens, mow lawns and check the cattle. But I long for the sea, now, and after Nick begins his apprenticeship, mum and I return to Port Fairy alone. I explore the shorelines while she cards fleece, spinning it ready for winter knitting.

* * *

Upon returning to school, I am informed that I’m a house prefect and, as a senior border, have the privilege of my own room in the coveted and refurbished wing. At last I have privacy, and throw my window open, welcoming the earthy, moist air of dawn, filled with ringing blackbird song. Beneath broad trees the cicadas gather at noon, and their shrill calls abrade my ears. Yet no amount of searching reveals one of these fascinating creatures. The nights are muggy and still, and moonlight filters through the leafy canopy onto the ivy clad walls.

Autumn rains arrive, falling in sheets against the window, and dripping sadly from twigs, stripping the branches and pasting their russet leaves onto the wet asphalt below. No longer able to watch, I turn from the misery to my music. I have a cassette player now, a gift from dad last Christmas. I play tapes of favourite songs I’ve captured from radio. Another privilege for senior students is a kitchenette and lounge room downstairs. Here I share coffee and snacks with friends.

There are some day students with whom I become friends, some inviting me to stay over for weekends. Whether from pity, charity or friendship, those hours of freedom are truly blessed. I also stay with a border at her family home, only a few suburbs away from the school. She lives with her dad in an inner suburban house, and attends as a border for stability during difficult times at home. We are both strong willed and develop a bond: her vibrancy contrasting to the dull fog of my existence. But her unrelenting, witty intelligence provides the catalyst I crave, and her courage and determination to meet challenges is inspirational. She faces what seem to me to be insurmountable problems, but with admirable fearlessness, leaving me to feel inadequate, far from the young woman I envisage for myself.

Unable to afford the luxuries most borders enjoy, we talk, filling rare sunny days with simple pleasures: eating fish and chips in the park, shopping in flea markets and exploring lesser known streets in the city. At her suggestion I take newly penned songs to an underground coffee shop called Frank Trainer’s, and perform with street poets and folk singers. My debut is encouraging, the songs naïvely passionate and political. Later in the year I return there with mum, introducing her to my music. Yet still she withholds her praise.
‘Your voice needs work, dear.’ Her red mouth is as hard as her words.
She’s right, I’m not a solo singer. However, I can write songs.

I turn eighteen in the spring holidays, and plan to drive back to school for the last term as a newly fledged adult, with the right to vote and answer for my own actions. I have already decided I will support the Labour Party in the next elections because Whitlam promises to bring our troops home from Vietnam. I write of these things, and study magazines and newspapers, lamenting how even this school offers so little preparation for the real world. Their focus on academia, the narrow road leading to bigger, longer cloisters, mortarboard hats and gowns like my teachers wear. I want to taste the world, not halls of learning.

By coincidence, on the night before my driver’s licence test, I baby-sit the policeman’s children. The ensuing practical test presents one hurdle. Dad has forgotten to teach me how to parallel park, a new innovation in town since I’ve been away. But the obliging policeman gives me an on-the-spot lesson, right outside the station. It’s a shaky finish, one tyre grazing the curb, but he’s satisfied and heads in to do the paper work while dad offers me a congratulatory hug.
‘Those Sunday drives after church have paid off,’ he chuckles.

I return to school, drive while mum navigates through city traffic. Her nerves are frayed, so my local knowledge proves useful.
News filters from home via letters and occasional evening phone calls. On once such night I am summoned to the boarding school office to accept a call from mum.
‘Dad is unwell, dear. The doctor thinks he has prostate cancer.’
The news shocks me. ‘Is he okay now?’
‘Yes. But he has chosen a less radical treatment. He’s as well as we can expect.’

Over background strains of classical music, mum informs me they’ve decided to sell the farm, that dad can’t manage any longer. There is no invitation for me to discuss this.
‘You must give some thought to what you would like to pack for when we move, dear,’ she suggests.
‘Okay.’ I am stunned by the suddenness of so much news, devastated. I wander back to my room, comforted at least, by thoughts of helping choose a new home and packing the farm essentials. There is so much to consider. But well before I’ve absorbed the consequences, mum writes. They have found a keen buyer for the farm and a suitable house in Terang.

My final weeks of school are like a desperate sprint at the end of a long journey. With two sets of exams, there is no time for the distractions of the city. Over a fortnight’s study break I stay with my aunt, a cousin of dad’s, and swat in her beautiful rambling garden to the strains of Cat Stevens, Cher and the soundtrack to Woodstock.

With academics out of the way, I find time for more self-expression, attending rehearsals of a play the borders perform for an annual a contest between school teams. Being in the cast of the winning performance boosts my self-confidence and notoriety. I use my role to lampoon the principal, earning further disapproving comments on my report.

Concurrently, anti-war protests and radical teachers stimulate and influence my political conscience, and I accompany friends on a moratorium march along the city streets. It is the first rally I’ve ever attended, an act of defiance the school principal has expressly forbidden. But I don’t give a damn what he thinks anymore. I am eighteen and almost free.

Heavy schedules of choir practice, my own singing and writing, and final assignments, leave little time for sleep. While I have grasped political science, and relish Greek history, I steel myself for the disappointing results of my school report. It seems everyone agrees I could have done better, but I am beyond caring. In order to survive the whole experience, I have sacrificed my home life to meet unrealistic goals. Somehow I have managed to maintain my focus through sheer, passionate determination and fear-induced adrenalin. And I have rationalised the outcome: good results are for city kids with twelve years of exclusive education. That I’ve made it through this at all is enough. No certificate will capture my true achievements.

My friends have encouraged me to perform a couple of songs as an interlude between presentations on speech night. After solos in chapel and success at the coffee shops, I include an original piece, a blatant protest song. After a shaky start, I lose my fear in the ballad, and project my passion at the audience. To my utter amazement, I receive a standing ovation.

***

Mum picks me up from Terang railway station. She seems awkward. ‘Jo, we’ve had to move house early.’
This doesn’t sink in right away. ‘How do you mean, early?’
Although the streets are empty, her eyes are searching for traffic. ‘I didn’t phone to tell you because, with all your exams and worries at school, I thought it might upset you.’
Still speechless, her words hover beyond sense.

She continues. ‘That house I mentioned; we’ve bought it and the renovations are done.’
I glare at her, utterly astonished, and she glances over: ‘We’re settled in.’

Instead of continuing out of town as we used to, she slows the car, turning into a side street and pulls into a short driveway, almost immediately. Ahead, a single garage gapes open onto the street, the house hidden behind an angular privet hedge. Mum reaches for my travel bag and leads me through the side gate, along a path to a back porch. I pass white, conited walls and step into the entrance.

A passageway disappears, to the left, passing the kitchen. Ahead, through a lead-lit door, stretches a modest hallway. The odour of fresh paint accentuates crisp surfaces, new carpets and lino. Already, familiar pictures hang on walls, mum’s favourite vase graces her occasional table, and I catch a glimpse of her spinning wheel.

After a brief inspection of the kitchen, mum leads me along the hallway, passing doorways revealing more familiar furnishings, and directs me toward the front of the house. The warmth of freshly oiled jarrah leads my eye through the front fly-wire door, across the garden to the roofs of houses. Beyond them lie the racecourse and my home.

I feel detached and have few syllables to offer, flaccid admiration, painful gasps. The house feels like someone else’s. Mum invites me into the front room.
‘And this is yours…’ she announces, her words proud and generous, her red mouth wide, eyes bright, anticipating my coos of delight. I enter and she follows. Before me stands a tall window across the corner of the room, floor to ceiling, light pouring in from the garden where a hose kicks arcs of water over abundant lawns. A liquid amber drenches the garden in green and shade. To its right and far away, over many rooftops, Mt Noorat reclines in a smoky haze.

Mum regains my attention. ‘You have the best room in the house, dear.’
No doubt in recompense for your lack of consultation on other matters. A chilling draft of realisation cuts through fog. I set my case down upon the carpet.
‘Thanks mum.’ While I appreciate her goodwill, I am gutted and feel wretched.
‘Now,’ she burbles, delighted to have me home. ‘I’ll leave you to settle in. All your things are here, see?’ She indicates a brush, comb and mirror I’ve never used that she has arranged artfully on the dressing table. I nod, managing a smile. I glance at her, wondering what else she can possibly do to derail my life.
‘Sorry mum. It’s been a long week. Bit overwhelming, that’s all.’ I manage a smile.

Mum accepts the compliment, still beaming as she admires her own efforts once more. ‘Isn’t the outlook lovely from this window?’
‘It’s gorgeous, mum. It’s a fine room. Thank you for letting me have it.’ I want to be alone and it’s becoming difficult to contain my distress.
‘And this is real woollen carpet. We didn’t stint on quality here.’
It’s lichen green, textured, and compliments the classic voile curtains and bedspreads.
‘Should wear well.’ I suggest, sitting down on the chez-lounge to unlace my shoes.
‘Yes, it is a long trip on the train.’ She senses my unease. ‘I’ll go and make you some tea…or would you prefer something cool. I have fruit juice and cider?’
‘I’d love a cuppa, thanks.’

As she departs, I prise off my shoes, listening to her heels resounding down the hallway to the kitchen. I peel off sweaty socks and my gaze settles on the carpet. The reality of homelessness resounds inside me, echoing like a huge, empty room, filled with cold breath that creeps over my limbs.

An elegant escritoire stands by the window, mum’s old one. Mine was crammed with favourite books and treasures. I get up and pull open the lid. Inside scant stationery fills one corner, stacks of old notepaper. The numerous box shelves are empty, but for a bottle of clag, and the draw is empty, too. A pair of china ornaments adorn the top shelf, the same pretentious Wedgewood that resided on the sitting room mantelpiece. Between the aristocratic couple a porcelain swan awaits a posy of violets or picatees. Behind the desk, on the pale green plastered wall hangs a picture of a little girl with a watering can, a poor copy of a Renoir. I’ve always disliked her innocence, the silky skin and cherub lips.

Exhaling, I turn to face the room. There are matching beds, their grey and chipped caste-iron ends once occupied the spare room. Mum has painted them gold with enamel. Where were mine, the ones I used to curl my toes around? She has covered the beds in new, matching crocheted bedspreads, no doubt made from her own hand-spun wool. Beneath them, pink and green blankets show through and, rolled up at the foot of each bed, lie half doonas, each resewn in floral covers. I exhale with a snort. She has been to so much trouble but has no idea what I like. These frills belong to a Bronte novel. I sigh again. It’s all I can do not to weep.

From the kitchen, cups and saucers rattle, the fridge door opens and closes. I should feel gratitude for all this preparation, but that is the problem. This isn’t my home, it is someone else’s. It’s just a house. I check the bedside table. It matches the wardrobe, part of a set from the spare room on the farm. Both large drawers are empty, the third lined with wallpaper. Two lacy handkerchiefs lie there. And the spare room bed lamp sits to one corner of the tabletop.

I turn to inspect the dressing table. Mum presented this incongruous piece of modernity to me some years earlier, and it stills reeks of sour glue and plywood. Few of my old clothes remain inside, now. Gone my favourite jeans, motley red jumper and tired corduroys. The underwear collection is scant, a few singlets and pants. Oh, how thoughtful! She has remembered a box of tampons. Just as well I shopped for clothes in Melbourne. Even my old school socks are gone, probably donated to the new charity shop.

I skirt around the bed to the wardrobe and open a door. Empty hangers rattle and lurch as if startled. My duffel coat remains, still with its Star Trek logo, hanging thoughtlessly from a hook on the back wall. A sachet of lavender dangles from the rail, adjacent to an old, rubbery-smelling raincoat, and a few shirts. An array of footwear fills one corner of the base: slippers and a pair of black patent shoes, old, stained thongs and a shabby hot water bottle. The drawer offers a pilled black jumper, riding helmet and some sewing, still unfinished from early high school days: none of this is any use to me now.

Numbed by the decimation, I return to the couch, wondering why it’s in my bedroom; the same one I slept on all those years ago, each Christmas, once covered in cracked leather upholstery. Now it emits a vinyl odour. I stretch my hands across its surface, digging in with my fingertips. The surface yields to my silent scream. I am confounded. What has my mother done? Never, amidst my wildest fears, had I imagine her capable of this. All my posters are gone, my treasured magazines. My books and high school memorabilia are probably rotting in the Noorat tip; school photos, too. There is no sign of the Wizard of Oz or Pinocchio, or the wildlife books and my stamp collection. Even the National Geographics are gone.

As the ramifications sink deeper, I ease back onto the headrest. That means my tools and chemistry set are gone; the treasure map, bows, arrows and quiver discarded; the sash windows with their sighing curtains, the elegant manna gum and taunting moonlight, replaced by one giant window framing all I love, and yet so unsympathetically distant. Gone are the chooks, my hammock in the hedge, my treasure, my tree house, the hayshed and its tunnel of memories, all gone. No more sunrises or crisp vegetables, no sweet, abundant orchard. My childhood: incised with a precision that only my mother could orchestrate.

I sit forward, face in my hands, fighting back the tears of loss and anger. I left home for just a little while, for two years. And somehow, between a few phone calls and letters, my past has been auctioned and its contents purged. My future ha relied on the farm, now all that is hijacked, a childhood thoughtlessly bundled up and discarded.

After unpacking my suitcase, I slide it beneath the spare bed and wander down to the lounge room. There dad peruses the last of his newspaper. He looks up, reading my face.
‘Bit of a surprise, eh?’ he understates, dourly.
I walk over as he eases himself up from the armchair, offering me one of his awkward hugs. I repay him with a glum, hurtful look which he has anticipated. He invites me to sit and, in a low voice, explains how there had been no peace until he relented. Helpless, he had filled the trailer with load after load of household contents, as mum urged his speedy return from the tip for another. He says he feels sad for me, but that there was nothing else he could do. His illness has worsened, and he had no choice but to sell.

I feel selfish now. I haven’t even asked how he is, although seeing his pallid face and dry skin I don’t need to ask. I scan the room. He brightens, demonstrating how he converted the radiogram into a cupboard for the new stereo system, all sleek, black and chrome. At either side of the doorway sits a large speaker on a corner shelf. The room is long, with ample windows, streaming light. A door leads out onto the veranda.
‘Good acoustics,’ he says, with a grin. ‘Mum doesn’t appreciate it.’
‘The room?’
‘No,’ he grins complicitly. ‘The hi-fi.’
I chuckle at this. No, there’s no need to ask why.

‘Some of your books are here.’ He points out a bookshelf along the inner wall, beyond the piano. ‘But only a few, I’m afraid.’
‘I’ll leave off looking for another day; few too many disappointments already.’
‘Fair enough. We had the lounge extended a few metres to fit everything in.’
I notice scanty curtains over the casement windows.

Dad stands again, inviting me on a tour. The most commanding feature in the room is the mustard yellow carpet. I can’t imagine what possessed them to choose it. And I notice different carpet in each room. Lino and tiles lead out to the rear of the house.
‘We had this back part extended, too. There was no indoor loo or laundry. And your mother wanted a work area for her craft. His office desk sits to one side of the extension, sharing mum’s cubby space. We head for the kitchen.

There is little left for me to do at the house in Terang. I help dad garden, and watch him play lawn bowls before my swim at the pool and, occasionally I ride my bike out towards the farm, but I can’t bear riding close. Dad has told me the orchard is gone, a new dairy is planned. Soon the paddocks will be filled with dairy herds. Rides leave me heavy with grief. It seems there is no where to belong anymore, no sense of place or home.

Woodstock

Mum hates housework and employs women to do it for her. Denise was one of them. She was only fourteen when she came to stay, with her piano accordion. But she seemed so much older to me and ever since her departure, I have longed to play a musical instrument of my own. Other than the school recorder, and improvisations on a pair of forty-four gallon drums near the wide gate, the only real instrument I’ve attempted is mum’s upright grand piano. She teaches me to play using kindergarten songs, and these make the lessons disappointing. But, to be honest, I have difficulty learning anything with mum as a teacher. She leaves me flustered, unable to concentrate, and fearful that her irritation might induce one of her turns. I haven’t done my piano practice for months. Lessons have stopped.

Mum’s power games leave residual anger: I get cranky, and ponder dark places and questions. Why are my parents the same age as my friends’ grandparents? Why, after such a fuss about adoption, does mum toy with me as if I’m made from rubber bands? As my anger grows, so too does a desire to hurt back. But I am the only one with whom I can be angry. Self-administered beatings and endurance activities soothe the flushes of fury, the impatience of helplessness. Mum rarely asks about the bruises and swellings, blithely accepting my explanations. After all, she reflects, with so much time outdoors I must inevitably take occasional spills.

I live a sheltered existence on the farm, but there is no shortage of music. From the symphonies, operas and concertos that have drifted into my bassinette in infancy, to pop music on my radio and the miracle of television, my life is steeped in melodies and pictures. While my friends are distracted by hours television, I rely on the radio for new songs and old favourites. Songs enable me expression, ways to remember the pain and wonders of my life in a language both ample and transportable. Soggy days sparkle with the addition of lyrics and I can choreograph menial chores to folk songs and rhythm and blues, while rock and roll provides the gears my bike lacks.

When Nick returns home for the school holidays he brings albums by Creedence, The Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix, and The Shadows. And I invest my own savings on records: The Seekers, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, and The Mamas and the Papas. At school I gather with friends to sing our favourites. Truly, music creates the kind of happiness nothing can extinguish.

Catchy songs by Simon and Garfunkel, Normie Rowe and The Monkeys provide a soundtrack to my busyness, while the political lyrics of Guthrie, Dylan, Eric Burdon and Joan Baez address issues of war and global unrest. For me, the potency of their songs is greater than any editorial in a newspaper, or TV bulletin.

Every weekend I ride in to town to buy a copy of a British magazine called Fab 208. Each issue features full-page, coloured pictures of my favourite artists and groups, and has articles about bands, new sounds and tours. I’ve pinned many of them to my walls, engulfing half the room with faces of my idols. Now the National Geographics rest unopened in dusty cupboards and corners.

While music cultivates my world, reading provides the means of exploring it. Teachers feed my eclectic appetite with weedy books by European and American radicals and, at lunchtimes, I peruse Life magazines, learning of Haight-Ashbury’s flower power, of free love communes, LSD and fashion. At last I have found reason to sew and, for the first time ever, make and wear clothes I like.

My curiosity bounds as eagerly as Husso. I’ve just read a novel about a heroin addict, and I want to know what it means to feel high. With my parents in bed, I locate a jar of ingredients from the pantry cupboard, and with a teaspoon, matches and candle, head out to the privacy of the laundry. After preparing the mixture, I clean up all evidence, grab an aspirin, and return to my room. Swallowing the concoction is the hardest part. It is bitter, and with a texture that sets me gagging. I chase the sludge down with a glass of milk, using the last of it to swish ghastly dregs from my mouth. God, I think. That guy must be desperate.

After a quarter of an hour I am convinced nothing will happen. I brush my teeth and get into bed as usual. But just on the brink of sleep, I detect a squirming dizziness. I attribute this to nerves or my imagination, turn over and go to sleep, quite unaware of the hell that awaits me.

I wake in shock, the room spinning violently. I have no balance and convulsions knot my stomach, legs and jaw. It’s hard to breathe and I’m scared. So terribly scared. Upon managing to turn on the bedside light, I slip out of bed, clinging to the sides in order to steady myself. The room reels and I am terrified of what else may happen. I grope my way up the hall, at last reaching my parents’ room where I call to mum, making only airy croaks.

I try again.
‘Mum! …mum!’ I’m determined to make some sound. Finally the reedy whispers wake her. She panics at the sight of me doubled up and shaking, racked as if cold.
‘What’s wrong?’ She reaches for my pyjamas. They’re soaked. ‘Have you wet yourself?’
‘No.’ My teeth chatter. ‘I don’t think so. I just feel really weird, sick. I can’t stop shaking.’

Donning her dressing gown, she leads me back to my room. ‘Hop back into bed and I’ll get more blankets. You’re freezing.’ She returns. ‘Have you been sick?’
‘No. I was fine at bedtime. I just woke like this.’ It’s difficult to talk with cramps racking my stomach.

Mum spreads two extra blankets over me and slips a hot water bottle in at my feet, tucking me in. Once I’m settled, she climbs into the spare bed and leaves the light on. I sleep fitfully, aware my mind is stretching in peculiar ways. More tremors leave me frightened. I can’t get warm and am convinced I am going to die.

In the morning mum wants to take me to the doctor. But because I am afraid to tell her what I’ve done, I insist: ‘A day in bed should fix it. Must have been something I ate.’

It takes two days for the shaking to subside, and provides ample time for me to reflect on how things may have gone, how such a simple mixture could be so insidious. Yet, while the experience has answered some of my questions, it creates more, failing to allay my desire for experimentation. Something has escaped from my cage and prowls, hungry to know more.

***

Each morning, before walking to the gate to catch the school bus, I pick a flower. Picatees are my favourite: the clove-scented ones mum likes. I pin the bloom to my jumper like a badge and wear it to school. Occasionally teachers remind me that it’s not part of my school uniform, but never instruct me to remove them. Flower power blooms and soon my classmates catch the vibe. We express our adopted culture in hippie artwork: doodles, decorous letters and posters and our speech is sprinkled with new phrases: cool and man and far out.

Few venture further into hippydom with regional conservatism constraining youthful expression. Any boys growing Beatle hairstyles are pigeonholed with hippies, petty criminals or druggies. But I’m far beyond caring what people think. The door is open and I’m eager to experience the possibilities of this new age culture, to seek my own individuality, a narrative, even notoriety.

I wear a broken cross on a chain, my first purchase from the new surf shop in Warrnambool. It represents my protest against war and conservatism, reflecting my hippie status. The symbol also appears on my schoolwork. My choice of pacifism is well informed, with Nick and his friends turning eighteen and eligible for call up as army conscripts and candidates for the carnage in Vietnam.

With the release of Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, I rise to the peak of my wave, cycling into town especially to pick up my copy. I play it loud, over and over on dad’s radiogram. Mum discovers me dancing wildly in the sitting room, oblivious to her protests about noise. I leave the house to ride, replicating the songs in my head.

* * *
There are no surprises about my Christmas present. It has been sitting on a bed in the spare room since September, following a droll visit to see Nick at boarding school. The day had promised to be long and tiresome, made more troubling by the possibility that my shameful congruence with Nick in the haystack, along with his sordid embellishments of it, was common knowledge among his friends.

But the day improves when, unannounced, we head for the city shops, straight to the biggest music store outside of Melbourne.

Mum makes enquiries of a young salesman who leads us to straight to the stringed section. There, with his help, my parents select a classical guitar. I watch the transaction in astonishment. The salesman demonstrates the range of my instrument, playing a Spanish piece I recognise. Rich, mellow phrases rise as his fingers straddle and dance over strings with the same strength. Passion and agility with which I climb trees. I want this artfulness for myself.

On Christmas morning the guitar sits at the foot of the tinselled tree, dwarfing every other gift there. Attached to the box is a large envelope. As is my preference, I take my gifts ‘from Santa’ to my room in order to open them quietly and privately. There I can concentrate, without parental scrutiny: the pressure to utter oh’s of feigned delight for the assembled family. Other gifts remain at the tree until after Christmas dinner.

I open the card first. ‘To dear Joanna,’ it reads, in mum’s round hand. ‘We want to you to have something special because you have done so well at school. Merry Christmas dear, and a Happy New Year too! Much love from Mum and Dad.’
So. A reward. Not from Santa.

Peeling sticky tape off wrapping paper is not something one hurries. It requires patience, much like untangling fishing line or sewing thread. And receiving a gift requires ample time for savouring, like a good meal. First one must look at the gift, appreciate its over-all presentation, its weight and shape. Then the components are identified, their qualities admired: their colour, texture and smell. Finally the gift must be possessed, not just held but embraced, for each part reveals a piece of the true nature of the object and the secrets of the gifted.

With wrapping paper neatly folded, I return to the cardboard box. It is stuck down either side, but the card is torn where someone has lifted the narrow end to peep inside – I am the unashamed culprit. I already know what smells lie inside, the shade and lustre of the wood, its grain and markings.

Freeing the tape, I raise the oblong lid for the first time, and slip the instrument out of its polythene bag. It is awkward to lift, quite heavy in fact, and I’m not quite sure of the right way to hold it. Finally, grasping it by the neck, I permit gravity to settle the matter and, from where the guitar nestles comfortably in my lap, I admire the wood grain beneath its flawless coats of varnish. A strong odour rises; sharp, gluey and resinous, wafting from the hollows.

The six strings hover, drawn tight across the soundbox by mechanisms beyond the neck. Three of the strings are nylon, like fishing line, and the others are wrapped in fine silver wire, much like piano strings. Beneath them the dark fingerboard is marked by frets and several spots of mother-of-pearl. Are they for ornamentation or have they a purpose? I wonder.

I brush my thumb across each string, watching them vibrate and listening to the vibrato ring. I can feel the notes through the soundbox, seeping into my chest and legs, intimately startling and present. My attempts at melody are disappointing: dull sounds from flat notes.

I take up the instrument and hold it properly, as I’ve seen Art Garfunkel do, and place my fingers in patterns on the fingerboard. I know about chords from piano lessons, where they seem much easier. My knowledge fails to transpose to here, and my attempts at strumming end in tangled-sounds.

Mum stands at the door beaming at me. ‘What do you think, dear?’ She speaks in her thick voice, one rarely used now.
‘I’m not sure what to do,’ I tell her, obviously disappointed. ‘I don’t know what to do. I will need lessons.’
‘Of course. We know that. There’s a lady in Terang who teaches guitar. I’ll phone her in the new year. But you can work some of it out, surely?’
‘Probably. But when I try to play notes, the strings buzz. And there seems to be no system to their tuning, either. Piano keys are in a pattern and easy to identify, but this is beyond me.’

For several weeks the instrument lies untouched in the box beneath my bed: a mystery I cannot cipher, taunting and goading me to try. I watch musicians on TV variety shows, but just as I catch a clue of their technique, the picture changes.

When school resumes, mum arranges the lessons. The first is very basic and already I doubt the teacher has ever played a guitar herself. I can tell from the spines of music books, piled high on a filing cabinet, that she presumes to coach an entire orchestra. I am accompanied by her st the piano, using a book containing chord diagrams. I follow slowly, but loathe the hillbilly tunes. I long for Seekers’ and Bee Gees’ songs.

Riding into town can be difficult enough without a cumbersome instrument case that is determined to behave like a sail in the wind. Inevitably, I have enough.
‘I’m not attending lessons anymore, mum,’ I declare after the return ride. ‘She’s teaching me cowboy songs and a country and western style. That’s not what I want to learn.’
Mum doesn’t argue. ‘All right,’ she sighs. ‘You’ll just have to teach yourself, then. There’s no-one else available.’

Of course that is easier said than done. Once again, sleek in its vinyl-zipped cover, my guitar languishes under the bed. But, as Christmas nears, mum stirs me to action.
‘Honestly, Jo! If you don’t want that guitar I’ll give it to Nick.’
‘You can’t,’ I snap. ‘You gave it to me, for Christmas. You can’t take it back!’
‘Well start playing it, then,’ she replies. ‘What’s the point of having it if you can’t use it?’
I smart at this. ‘That’s not fair, mum. I’ve made a decent effort to master the bloody thing. It’s beyond me, that’s all.’

But her threat is an effective catalyst. With a good ear for music and the book to guide me, I sit at the piano, tuning and practicing the few chords I’ve mastered. Then, on Saturday morning, I ride into town. At the local electrical and music store I discover sheet music for the Bee Gees song ‘Words’. It is a lucky investment for I recognise some chords, and assemble other ones a note at a time. Finally, with my scratchy knowledge of music theory, I pick out the introduction. The break through is momentous, and confidence spills through the breach. With basics in place, I now work out chords to songs that I’ve already learned and typed up on an old Remington mum bought from school.

***

The magic of harmony, the blending of voices, is something I have loved since infancy. I still sit back of an evening with dad, listening to Welsh, Russian, Austrian and American choirs on the radio. Understandably it is a small step from there to the school choir where harmony overrides the drollness of traditional pieces, and contemporary songs join our repertoire.

For me, music is as plenteous as air, a language open to infinite interpretation, universal. How, I wonder, can there be so much music from all over the world, yet so little in my hometown? Other than radio, many folk know little more than the church hymns of Christmas, Easter and funerals, and all that is too solemn for me.

Nick returns early from boarding school and picks up his year at Terang High where he mixes easily. I can see his cosmopolitan style appeals to local girls, and he is the envy of his mates. His girlfriend is Beth, a senior girl at school. One evening she knocks on the door. Nick is fixing his car and she is cold and bored.

She joins us in the sitting room for supper and we learn that she sings and plays guitar. I coax her to my instrument. Her voice is strong and confident, and she has an extensive repertoire of popular folk and traditional songs. Once we get to know each other, she teaches me new chord patterns, strums and fingering, and a technique for threading songs together. Our friendship extends beyond Nick’s V8 production cars.

* * *

This year the summer holidays provide a glorious blend of surfing and family picnics in and around Port Fairy. One morning as we fish for flathead in the Moyne, I smell a flaring match, and watch Nick light a cigarette upwind from me.
‘Hey, Nick. Let me try one of those?’
‘It’ll make you sick.’ But he obliges, and helps shield my flame from the wind. ‘You gotta suck on it,’ he coaches, ‘or it won’t stay lit.’
I try.
‘Draw on it properly, into your lungs, not just yer mouth.’
After a few aborted puffs I inhale, choking on the sensation. He grins, shaking his head, and leaves me to figure it out. I clear my throat and try again, knowing what to expect this time but as I exhale, I’m startled by how much smoke comes out. The thought of that and giddiness creeps up on me, turning into a real head spin. I lie back on the jetty, groaning.
‘Warned ya.’
I stagger ashore, clammy and pale, and head for the dunes in case I spew. I sit with my head down, fighting the nausea, determined not to vomit while the cigarette withers to dangling ash between my fingers. The seediness remains with me all morning.
‘Maybe you should try menthols,’ Nick suggests. ‘They’re easier on the throat.’
I consider this as we walk across the causeway, heading home. ‘Do they cost more?’
‘Nuh. Don’t think so. Anyway, you can get smaller packs if you want.’
‘I’ll think about it.’ I’m still unable to fathom why smoking is such a big deal. Grown ups must be stupid wanting to do something that makes you feel that sick.

There’s an on-shore breeze and the waves beyond the rocks are long and perfect. I’m itching to hire a board and get out into it. After lunch, I ride to East Beach and hand sixty cents to the tanned, body-board guy.
‘Charge me up for three hours?’
He nods. I’m a regular now and, when I go over time, he doesn’t call me in anymore.

That evening Beth and her brother arrive and we decide to attend movies at the local cinema, half a block away. After the show we walk down towards the river. Nick calls in at a milk bar and buys me a small pack of menthol smokes. I sit on a pier with John, his sister and Nick. Undoing the cellophane wrapping, I sniff the minty contents. Johns hands me some matches and I light up first go, then sit back against the pylon in case I get dizzy. There’s a pause in the conversation and I realise they’re watching me. My head remains clear and I become more confident, watching the smoke swirl, silver in the starlight. Beth slides over and teaches me how to blow smoke rings. It leaves an unpleasant bitterness in my mouth, but looks spectacular.

* * *

With more time on her hands, mum becomes determined to have me socialise. Again I resist, and she is aware of how closed I am towards her: sullen round the house, lacking affection or spontaneity. Troubled and hoping to gain some insight, she makes an appointment for me to see her psychiatrist in Melbourne. I sit out in the corridor while the doctor spends much of my consultation chatting to mum. It’s an unsettling feeling. The mumbling voices fill me with disquiet.

Finally the door opens and mum summons me in, before stepping outside to wait. The doctor stands, introducing himself, and invites me to settle back in a chair. He asks questions about arithmetic, general knowledge, what games and sports I play, about my friends, whether I like school. My answers are short and uncomfortable. It’s hard to warm to talking about yourself to a stranger. With that, I’m dismissed. Returning to the corridor I am left to surmise my answers must adequate. Mum goes back in and the mumbling resumes. Apparently he doesn’t share her concerns.

‘He thinks you’re going through a stage,’ she informs me on the way to lunch. But her socialising campaign intensifies, with a rash of invitations arranged with parents of my school mates, resulting in sleepovers. But her taste in friends is not mine, and I remain resentful of her manipulation and interference. This leads to frustration which I take out on my guests, deserting and observing them from perches in a dozen trees, with only pity at their helplessness. Most of the kids are townies, and have no idea what to do on a farm. It’s a cruel trick I play, and causes trouble at school. I’m ashamed of it afterwards, realising we are pawns in mum’s games.

‘Take her for a horse ride,’ mum suggests for my next guest. ‘Or a walk to the lake.’
‘She’s a townie, mum. She doesn’t like mud on her good runners. And don’t suggest horse-riding because I’m not riding that treacherous bloody pony again.’
‘Couldn’t you lead her round the paddock?’
‘I’m not going to lead her anywhere. She’s used to playing basketball, dressing up, swapping cards and stuff. She’s not interested in what I do, and her stuff is boring, too.’

Mum over-scrubs a potato, irritated at my stubbornness. She doesn’t realise how different I am, or how content I feel with my own company.
‘I’m not an entertainer, mum. Everything I do leaves them bewildered, and that’s not fair on them or me. They’re not confident climbing trees, they don’t have the stamina to walk round the lake – it’s three miles you know.’ She doesn’t know because she’s never walked it. ‘And as for archery, sitting in the middle of paddocks to hunt, or stuck up a tree, you can’t blame them for wanting to go home.

Finally she agrees to leave invitations to me. ‘It’s something I should do my own way. And when I’m ready, not with you pushing me.’

Few sleepovers follow, and occasional invitations to stay with friends. Yet I enjoy seeing how they live. Their modern homes are small and pokey, with gardens a stone’s throw long, but at least they have all the amenities of town and it’s an easy walk to school. They talk late, mostly about sex and boys, or clothes, movies stars, bands and school gossip – no wonder they don’t wake up till halfway through the morning. One group of friends agree to a walk across town with me but balk when they realise I mean literally across town: across the lake. Often I find their parents more interesting to talk to.

But quietude and home are what I love most. Nick is out most of the time, and I avoid mum’s demands by rising early, finishing my chores and maintaining neutrality. Her focus is more on Nick and his antics, and there are few arguments with me. I can only suspect she assumes her loneliness is like mine.

A dose of bronchitis has kept me in bed for almost a week. I notice mum is less manipulative when I am sick, more like her old self. I guess my dependence provides an opportunity to nurture and care and the truce is mutual. After lunch I listen to pop-music, writing lyrics to the new songs and then chord them on my guitar. Following temperature checks, afternoon tea arrives on a tray, with more cough mixture. Once the tray is clear, I entertain myself drawing aeroplanes, houses, and trees and, with scissors, homemade clag and old pop magazines, I create a collages. Mum offers a candid critique of my work.
‘That gum tree doesn’t look real,’ she points out.
I’m not in the mood for criticism. ‘Why?’
‘Gum leaves don’t grow like that. They hang down. Look.’ She points out my window. ‘And the trunk doesn’t sit on the ground, it grows out from it.’ And of my next effort: ‘The house has no veranda, and the roof is wrong.’

The comments are deflating, and wither my desire to draw. I assume she does it because she’s a school teacher, instinctively correcting mistakes, but I wonder how many children’s bright and uninhibited creations she’s pulled to pieces, and how much talent she’s quashed with her frank appraisals. She returns moments later with an art book of charcoal sketches and water colours of the Australian bush. I agree my drawings are primitive in comparison.
She admires a model aeroplane I’ve made from plasticine. She likes the detail: how there are passengers inside, and suitcases that open to reveal articles of clothing; and a cockpit with console instruments. I’ve even given the pilot a parachute. Mum says it’s intriguing.
‘Look,’ she chuckles, delighted. ‘There are socks and a handkerchief. You have a real gift with plasticine.’ She places a glass of orange juice beside my creation.
I smile in thanks. ‘It’s good because it’s kid’s stuff,’ I mutter. She doesn’t seem to notice the sarcasm.

Mary McQueen is an old school chum of mum’s, and an artist. She specialises in abstracts and lithographs which I find unappealing. Mary enjoys an enviable lifestyle, moving freely in international art circles, and teaching at RMIT. We’ve stayed with her a couple of times while mum attends her appointments with specialists. Mary’s studio fascinates me, but I am herded out with stern warnings. She has little patience with kids about, although she’s widowed with grown children of her own.

One spring, when Mary comes to stay with us on the farm, we drive out to Tower Hill Cemetery for some sketching. I bring my own materials, determined to improve my technique, learning from Mary. Using charcoal, I make scratchy sketches of statuary while Mary works with pastels and soft, coloured pencils which I gather are very expensive. Watching her work, I sense her irritation. She deflects my questions and withholds even the most casual tuition.

Next morning she asks me to sit on the back veranda while she sketches me in charcoal. She explains that she is taking notes that will become a finished work back at her studio. Later, after Mary has returned home, mum confides that Mary says I can’t draw and will never be an artist. Naturally I am wounded, but also puzzled, as her opinion contradicts my school results in art: my best subject this year. I wonder if they are deliberately putting me down. Fortunately it will take more than one appraisal to discourage my attempts at self-expression, of interpreting my world and my feelings. I know good art from bad; the former rings with truth in a way that cannot be objective. Eventually Mary sends mum a copy of a lithograph entitled ‘A Farmer’s Daughter’. Surrounding my stylised face are farm icons and Mt Noorat. I regard it with disappointment.

Inspired by Mary’s visits, mum executes decorative, brushwork designs on the bellies of glazed pots, vases and plates. Most are clumsy, but there some fine pieces among them. Open books clutter the laundry table, a tableau of her inspiration: Japanese calligraphy, ink-washed paintings, and Chinese prints. After school I watch her throw pots. Sometimes I suggest a shape I like and she produces one or two, but always returns to seemingly ungainly work, disproportionate and heavy-looking. Inevitably she agrees to teach me, but insists I learn from scratch, first preparing the clay and constructing coil pots and slab plates. One day when she is away I try throwing a pot on the wheel and it is easy for me. My hands seem to transpose ideas and I produce some elegant vases.
Mum is encouraging: ‘You’re good with your hands, Jo.’

She has a gas kiln constructed on the back veranda and there are problems fine-tuning it. But she produces some beautiful pieces and offers them as gifts. I learn to stack the kiln, too, and to monitor the firing through peep holes, where rows of ceramic cones indicate temperature for the duration of the process. The thundering noise, the hissing, white heat frighten me, but the thrill of holding my own vases is assurance that I must press on, determined to find the artist inside of me.

Who says the media has no long term effect on children? From fairy stories of children lost in forests to the disappearance of Harold Holt, such stories, whether news or entertainment, had a profound effect on me.

Early into my second year at Terang High, a media-frenzy builds around the pending execution of a jail escapee, guilty of murder. Each evening the future of Ronald Ryan is discussed graphically in homes around the nation. As the day of execution approaches, community protest and opposition swells. Newspaper editorials declare the barbarity of capital punishment, yet their banners count down the days of Ryan’s life. The macabre issue draws lively debate in our classroom and I have even written about it. I bought myself a diary this year. Now there is only one entry: on the second of February, the day Ryan is hanged.
While capital punishment will soon be outlawed, this is no longer my dilemma. I feel I am part of the indecision that stayed Ryan’s execution, that I share responsibility for sending him to the gallows. Repugnance flows through me like venom, and grief creeps into my extremities, threatening to suffocate me.
On the day of execution I begin swimming in earnestness, seeking a way across the chasm of guilt over which I feel suspended. I continue this daily purge until the pool closes for winter: swimming for Ryan, for my indecision, and to reach a certain numbness I am sure lies somewhere beyond my pain. After forty laps I stagger drunkenly to the change room, still in a trance, and only fully conscious after the ride home.

***

Through winter I must find other ways to overcome my guilt. Initially bike rides are sufficient: completing dozens of laps; sprinting until my thighs ache and my lungs burn.

By spring I have forgotten about Ryan. Now I ride for pleasure: pushing my limits, sensing new boundaries and the lure of pain itself. I hunger to challenge the ultimate opponent: myself against the clock.

***

Until now I have taken little interest in physical education at school. The whole concept of team competition seems ludicrous to me, totally unrelated to fun – even after a stirring lecture about team spirit from my teacher. Of what use is a ball to me in real life? But, to appease the critics, I attend selection try-outs for the annual inter-school sports day and begin training. I’m not built for sprinting, preferring the marching squad, ball games, javelin, and the long and high jump events.

However, the first cross-country run is a challenge I feel unequal to. This annual event requires all students to complete a five-mile circuit through and around the town. Waiting in my group at the start line, I have already braced myself for defeat. From the first step I’m left well behind, and settle down to jog. I will finish eventually, and that will be sufficient to satisfy my sports teacher. But near the half way mark I catch up with stragglers, tired from their initial sprint. I have found an easy rhythm between my heartbeat and breathing, much like when I’m swimming, and soon pass more kids. No wonder they’re exhausted, I think. A warm day and few water stops. While for me these conditions are easy: the heat and thirst are part of my long bike rides and archery games.

On the far side of the lake, I begin to wonder, to suspect even, that there is something wrong. It’s only half way and yet contestants are falling like winded ducks. Perhaps I’ve taken a short cut by mistake? It’s hard for me to believe what is happening.
On a bike ride, or in the pool, I’d be ready for a sprint now, so I let go, and feel a familiar wave of energy welling up. My feet are lighter and my legs like springs. I overtake other competitors in a blur.
Some of them are calling to my back, jeering: ‘Hey fatso! You must have cheated.’
My face flushes, smiling at the compliment, and I wipe the sweat from my eyelids.

Passing the cemetery and still barely puffing, I approach a plantation adjacent to the school. The finish line is in sight. I lean into my stride, feet pounding along the gravel shoulder. As I turn in at the school driveway, cheering pikers and teachers crowd the finish line. I am puffing now, hands grabbing pockets of air as my legs stretch to cover the remaining yards.
Beyond my roaring ears and pounding heart I hear voices calling my name and, within me, there is the release I have waited so longed for. Crossing the line, they all crowd in, incredulous that one of the fat kids, a girl no less, has finished so well.
‘You’re the second back in your whole group,’ declares a teacher at my shoulder. She writes my name on a clipboard. ‘Well, done. Go and have a drink.’

Still gasping, I’m conscious I’m not a pretty sight. My matted hair is streaming sweat, my arms and legs are blotched and pink under my unflattering red sports tunic. But I walk proudly to the drink fountains and burying my face beneath the cool stream, drinking long draughts. At last, I think. At last, I have done something real, something that’s not pretty, not literary or artsy. This is something gutsy and brave and physical. Illusive pieces of the puzzle have slipped into place and all the pain and grief dissipates.

With the success and confidence of my endurance run, I add jogging to my daily schedule, donning tennis shoes as dusk covers the cycling circuit. Dad says it’s a mile to our neighbour’s gateway, and that makes two miles each time I cross the cattle grid. I sprint up the rise, checking my watch to ensure seconds have been shaved from yesterday. Then, to cool down, ride my bike with mind content and body tired, ready for a shower and sleep.

The pool reopens in late spring. I resume laps, still keeping a balance of cycling, running and swimming.

* * *

‘It’s going to be a hot summer, a stinking Christmas,’ dad announces over the top of his newspaper. True to his word, the hay harvest is ready by my last day of school.

Saturday dawns, a typical scorcher, the kind of day that draws families to the beach, seeking relief. But by afternoon a northerly will cut the surf to ribbons and lift the sand into willie-willies. Dad says there’s a low in the Bight. I picture its waves rolling high up beaches, tearing seaweed from the reefs, dredging it over rocks and up the beaches to the foot of the dunes.

After my summer-morning vigil of watching the sun rise, I unleash Husso and open the wide gate, heading down to turn hay bales. These must be loaded and stacked before the weather breaks. The wind returns, a dry, turgid stream of air that pulses, tugging at my shirt.

After breakfast I prepare iced drinks for the carting, and grab my shabby bandana, wetting it under the laundry tap and wrapping it round my neck.
‘Only two loads left, I reckon,’ says Nick, pummelling his toast. His hands are big now and this habit seems quaint.
Dad agrees. ‘The glass is falling already. Could be a cool change by tonight.’
Mum sighs. ‘Oh, I do hope so. There’s no fun preparing Christmas in this fug.’

We set off with the tractor and trailer, me opening gates while Nick drives. Dad leans on the rail and studies the bleached sky, his towelling hat-brim flicking back and forth in the wind. Brown spots fleck the backs of his coarse, tanned arms as he steadies the drink billy.

While the men fit the loader onto the tractor, I carry the tinkling billy and cups to the shade of the two pine trees. Surging wind sighs through their pine needles, so dry it parches my nostrils.

I drive while the men load: two easy trips and all stacked by lunchtime. Before lunch the mercury has risen to one hundred degrees, and the day is far from over. We head to the house for lunch, the wind buffeting our backs. Radio news blares as mum slices cold lamb onto our plates. We add fresh salad, and spread jam and cream over slices of bread.
‘What are you two doing about the Christmas tree this year,’ dad asks.
Nick answers first. ‘Thought we might set up that old tree, and use those decorations from up in the linen press.’
‘Oh. You’ve been up there, have you?’ Dad’s not really surprised, just amused we’ve taken so long to discover a family secrets.
‘Yeah. There’s a Santa Claus suit and other costumes up there, too.’ I add, confirming my complicity.
‘Be careful with those,’ mum warns. ‘They belonged to Granny Clarke and grandad! And don’t forget the angel chimes.’ They’ve become a favourite part of our Christmas table setting.

Late in the afternoon we ride to Terang for a well-earned swim. Half a mile a way we can hear the pool is packed: the splash of boys doing dive-bombs, the squeals of toddlers and pool-side parents. Doing laps is hopeless in such a crowd so I practise underwater swimming, nosing along the floor of the pool like an eel. I wind around the legs of unsuspecting swimmers, reaching for coins, hairclips and bandaids down near the vent where the babble of voices is muffled and distorted. Spangled bodies pierce the water, and swarms of bubbles stream upward.

Exhaling through my nose, I watch my own breath, encapsulated like balls of mercury, glooping toward the surface. My skin is fizzing with tiny bubbles, caught on the hairs of my arms and legs. Mobility in the water is a sensual joy. I rise from the slimy floor to a space on the surface, floating and relaxed. While the sun stings my skin, water laps, pleasantly cool at my ears. Then someone splashes me deliberately. Nick! It’s not worth going after him. Just being a pig as usual.

I meet a couple of my friends on the grassy slope. They are lying on their towels sunbaking. It is pleasantly cool on the lush lawn. I pick at blades of grass, chewing on them. My friends discuss boys, a topic I am well and truly over.

Down at the changing rooms I locate a ten cent coin hidden in my sandal. I head to the kiosk and buy a bag of mixed lollies: milk bottles, raspberries and cream, bananas and musk sticks. When I return, my friends have left, so I sit on the cement wall and munch contentedly on my sweets, leaving a few for tomorrow. There’s no sense waiting for the crowds to thin. More families wend in through the turn styles than those going home.
I call to Nick. ‘I’m going home. It’s too crowded for swimming.’
‘Righto.’

***

It’s a tough ride in the head wind and I’m glad to get home for a cool drink. Draped over grandad’s wicker chair, I listen as ice tinkles in my glass, and take short, refreshing sips to make the drink last. While plain water is best for thirst quenching, iced cordial is made to last. I set my legs swinging, and as my heels brush the flank of the chair, I think of grandad.

Sunday it’s hotter still. We attend the Christmas church service, crowding in with families. I fiddle with my clothes and find new ways to fold the order of service. Back home, I help mum prepare lunch. It is too hot for the traditional roast.
‘What book did you get from Sunday school, dear?’ she asks.
‘Heidi.’
‘Oh. That’s written by Johanna Sprye.’ She smiles, placing a dollop of mayonnaise on the side of each plate. ‘Your name was supposed to be Johanna, you know?’
‘Really? Why isn’t it, then?’
‘We thought it would cause spelling problems.’
‘But people can’t spell Joanna anyway. I prefer Jo.’

Once the table is cleared and dishes done, Nick and I set up the Christmas tree. With dad’s step ladder we empty the top shelves of the linen press, carefully lifting down several boxes. The larger one, the size of a suitcase, contains the collection of fancy dress costumes worn by dad and his sister when they were children.

Suddenly we hear a ‘Good Lord!’ from the sitting room and rush in to discover dad halfway out of his chair, his hand raised to hush us, and listening intently to the radio.
‘Just repeating,’ says the newsreader. ‘The prime minister of Australia, Mr Harold Holt, has been reported missing from a beach near Portsea where it is believed he was swimming. We will bring further details as they come to hand.’
We stare at each other, shocked. Our faces blank, mouths hang open in disbelief, waiting for this not to be true. Mum arrives at the door.
‘Did I hear right, Merlin? Harold Holt’s missing?’

The next bulletin reveals that the PM was swimming at a spot renown for treacherous undercurrents, and officials believe he was caught by a rip and pulled out to sea. Upon hearing this, I can bear no more. I scurry to my room, don socks and runners and slip out the front door. My head buzzes, memories of Ronald Ryan rising from some deep, dark corner of my soul, forming a tight ball in my throat. I have to get away.

At first I trudge up the bark-laden front driveway and pause to survey the road. It’s stinking hot, even under the pines, and my mouth is already dry. But heaviness drives me on. I have to do something, anything to stop the growing ache. I head down the melting bitumen towards Terang, with my back to the wind. But, instead of continuing, I turn east down the lane.

Ahead of me time hangs open. I feel driven but don’t know what to do. Glaring gravel stretches all the way to the horizon. One foot in front of the other, that’s all I can think. Keep moving. And somehow it’ll be all right. The Prime Minister is missing, not dead, and it’s not my fault. It isn’t because I lowered my guard, because I looked away for a moment. These things happen. People disappear. Swimmers drown at beaches.

Reaching the boundary end of the farm my mind registers foreign ground. I stop, dazed, still unsure what to do. I face the farm now, barely sweating, not puffing at all. I don’t want to go back there but there’s nowhere else to go. Again I trudge, one foot in front of the other and oblivious to heat or effort, I register the familiar outline of pines and the intersection ahead. I pause in their thin shade.
There’s a breathing sound: is it me, or wind through the trees? I run again, following the rhythm of someone’s footfall, all the way to the intersection and then prop, turning back to the laneway. The answer must be down there somewhere. I must have missed it.

Back into the blinding sun, the road a furnace. The Prime Minister is missing. The phrase repeats itself, over and over. I can’t stop it. I try to think over it, louder, struggling to drown the radio announcer’s voice. Yes, the Prime Minister is missing, I scream silently, and there is nothing I can do about it. Nothing I do can change it.
‘I cannot bring back someone who is missing!’

Suddenly there is stillness.

I have come to a halt and look about me, fully aware of my surroundings, of what I am doing. ‘And there is nothing I can do about it,’ I sob. ‘I have to look after me, now.’
But the Prime Minister is missing! Again the fear grips my throat. I lean forward, producing convulsive sobs and retching. I wander to the edge of the road and cross a strip of dried grass to the fence. I lean against a weathered post and weep.

After wandering through the paddocks, I arrive at the wide gate, my crying silent now, but eyes and nose still streaming. As I climb the gate my legs give way and I roll over the broad beam into the yard.

At the dairy I bend over the washroom sink and bury my mouth in streaming water, taking thirsty gulps between sobs. I bathe my face, and comb wet fingers through my hair, soothing my throbbing scalp. I am crying for myself, now. Using all those tears I’ve put aside, afraid I’ll lose my grip. I have. I have lost my grip, yet I’m still here. Still strong.

I rest on the cool room steps as a northerly buffets the dairy. Miraculous, cool drafts wash over my soaked clothes, stripping the heat from my body. My legs are smudged with dust, my arms and neck sunburned and smarting. Finally I dare to think: The Prime Minister is missing and I have a life to live, answers to find, and a way through this daily maze of contradictions.

Another rinse drains the redness from my eyes and I feel surprisingly refreshed. I head up to the house. Beyond the roof dark thunderheads gather, nudging each other upward, over horizon.

* * *

Within the last few weeks of autumn, the days have cooled. Equinoxic storms are passed and warm days queue, duplicated and mild. At dawn, dew lies heavy on leaves and drips from the veranda eaves. Soon a frosty crispness curtails my rides, leaving clear evening skies that linger in fiery sunsets, fading to long, still nights.

From the stand of elm trees, a lonely owl probes the velvety darkness: ‘mopoke … mopoke,’ and the call is answered from the void of night; drawing sounds from story book pages, and disturbing my slumber.

Slowly a light creeps into my dream, and sleep comes to a tousled end. I don’t need to open my eyes to discover what has awakened me and to ignore the summons is impossible. My body responds with a heaving sigh. I surrender and open my eyes. Without lifting my head I can already see the top of the tall, sash window. The blind glows golden, illuminated as the intrusive moon passes by, slower than the hour hand of a clock.

While I detest the way time crawls, it is the shadows at the window that fill me with dread. They are always there, whether the moon deepens them or not. I know it is irrational, a trick of grainy darkness making shadows move, animated all the more by stories of children lost in forests and hunted by evil creatures. It is enough to convince me, time and again, that there are two black bears standing tall and threatening, one either side of the window, their thick furry arms clasped across the middle of the sash, and I can see their powerful paws trembling in the dimness.

I am too afraid to climb out of bed and turn on the light. Anyway, to do so is unthinkable. Unspeakable creatures lurk in thick darkness beneath my mattress. I can’t hear them but I know they wait patiently for a sleeping hand or foot to stray out of the covers and down into their den.

My attention returns to the window. The moon casts no other shadow on the blind, only the bears. Eventually shadowy branches of the manna gum will appear as the moon sinks westward over the ridge and the lake beyond. On some nights I am lucky; heavy clouds fill the sky, covering the moon, bringing a welcome darkness and the rush of wind. Then a gentle patter of raindrops builds to a crescendo, rattling so loudly that I shiver beneath the blankets. Such storms unfailingly lull me to sleep.

At other times the moon sets further north, allowing only a slender shaft of light through the blind. It creeps across the wall, never quite reaching my bed, and rarely into my dreams. But this night is crisp and still, the sky a deep blue-black, spattered with familiar constellations and a few wispy clouds. Such early, winter nights are long, frosty and silent. No crickets sing and it’s too late for frogs or the restive twitter of birds. Occasionally a farm dog barks or a cow lows in the distance, but the moon glowers as before, its presence resting like a weight upon my chest. I resent its brightness, its indolent journey, how it pulls me up from the depths of sleep to wallow in wakefulness, just as it draws oceans to the shore.

I raise my head and sit up on my elbows, keeping the blankets tucked around me. Through the gloom I search deeper shadows for bears’ faces, but they have seen me, and close their shiny black eyes, pressing themselves against the curtains. But, still their arms remain clasped across the window. They are cunning bears, indeed.

When I first saw them I cried in fear. Mum came with a torch. I begged her to turn on the light but, when she did, the bears hid and she didn’t believe me. Yet, as soon as she switched the light off and left my room they were back, angry at my betrayal.
I lie back again, pulling the bedding up around my ears to muffle their soft growls. But I cannot slow my heartbeat or still my pulse and it rustles so noisily against my pillow. I’m sure the bears can hear it.
‘Ah!’ I sigh. Why must the moon waken me and make the bears so tall and frightening?

I close my eyes tightly and my throat aches to cry, but I will not to let the bears know I am afraid. Grandad told me animals smell fear. I won’t let the bears do that. I turn on my side. Moonlight glows brightly on the bedside table legs and polished floorboards, shadows falling darkly against the golden grain. I watch them move over joins in the boards. It would be beautiful if it weren’t so menacing. My eyes sting, tired from watching. I lift my gaze to the wardrobe, its two keyhole eyes studying me across the darkness. I stare back.

Late one afternoon there was a thunderstorm while mum sewed in the kitchen. She asked me to fetch my tartan skirt from that wardrobe, and as I approached its gaping door, a bolt of lighting split the air, filling the room with an intense white flash. Instantly the sky ripped apart, shaking the house and rattling the windows. I ran in terror, bursting into the kitchen and burrowing through a maze of chair legs to safety, surprised to find Nick there already. Another crackle followed and we remained there for the whole storm.

Dad came in from the darkness and told us lightning had struck a neighbour’s haystack, setting it ablaze. We ran after him, tumbling excitedly into the back of the ute. As he drove through the trembling evening air, we clung on, bouncing in the back. Dad helped other farmers extinguish the blaze until the fire brigade arrived, dismantling the haystack, dowsing each bale with water and stomping out the cinders. The damp coals’ rancid smell rose on the breeze.

And when we returned home mum gave us a neighbour’s message. One of our own trees had been struck and was still on fire. Back in the ute we thumped about among knapsacks and implements as dad drove down the track to the rabbit paddock. There a group of old pines and a boxthorn would be in danger. But by the time we arrived, all that remained of a whole, forty-foot pine tree was a smouldering stump. Ember tipped, disembodied branches scattered across the ground amongst swathes of splinters and pine needles.

Now, the moonlight has crossed the room, and settles on my bed. The gum tree shadow plays upon the blind. I stretch in anticipation of sleep and press the sheet under with my chin so I can watch the window, while remaining undetected by the bears. They are there of course, tirelessly on guard, but I am certain they are not as tall and dark as before.

I can see the moon clearly through the blind, round and so bright I imagine its warmth on my face. I watch as it settles behind the tall pines along the road, and then fade. With the room dim now, the bears doze. Soon it will be morning. I turn once more and close my eyes. Outside, blackbird song rings through the garden.

* * *

After school I complete my round of chores, taking care not to invoke mum’s impatience. This has proven increasingly difficult because her moods move independently around the house, quite unannounced. I have developed a sixth sense about them: the repeated sigh, the irritated click of her dental plate, an impatient broom or an emphatic ‘Blow!’ from the sewing room, all warn of an imminent fusion.

Snippets of conversation are insightful, too, with both tone and content suggesting clues. From these can I decide whether my day will be spent indoors or outside, playing archery.

My tree house is almost finished. I say almost because I keep thinking of more ways to make it comfortable. Strips of lino have provide a floor covering, making it much easier to clean, and reducing the drafts. And I’ve sewn gingham curtains from remnants of a wretched apron I made at school. Their bright yellow adds privacy at the window and they can be drawn closed if needs be.

Like my bedroom, the walls are lined with pictures of my favourite celebrities, vying with images from old National Geographics. A pile of recent editions serve as reading material and a stand for my table. The tabletop rests against the rear wall – a heavy sheet of corrugated cardboard reclaimed from one of mum’s pottery packages. Noggins provide shelving, displaying treasures, smaller books and several photographs. I sit on a folded mattress made from recycled wheat bags, and there is a folded blanket, too, discarded from the spare room. A once-blue, shabby, brocade cushion serves as a pillow.

I’ve spent several nights sleeping in my tree house. It’s comfortable enough and surprisingly warm with the door closed and a hot water bottle smuggled from my own bed. Even the brawling possums in higher branches don’t bother me any more.

Seems everyone has forgotten about my lair. When mum remarks on my long absences, I remind her of my love for climbing trees and my archery game. This is sufficient to allay further investigation. She is quite unaware of my nocturnal adventures.
Today, more especially this evening, I have anticipated for weeks. My science teacher has informed us there will be a lunar eclipse with the next full moon and our newspaper confirms his prediction.

With dinner dishes done and the breakfast table set, I fill my hot water bottle, grab my duffle coat and set off to my new digs. It’s almost dusk when I rest my bike on its post. I settle on the landing, rugged up and cross-legged, with my hot water bottle nestled in my lap. Before me lies the eastern horizon. The clear sky is tinged with a blush of sunset, and ripe with promise. First stars flicker and I have a spectacular front row seat for the show of the year, scheduled for just after moonrise.

With the calm of evening, an imperceptible breeze sighs through the canopy and there’s a soft, buzzing stillness muffling my ears. In the east a familiar glow becomes more distinct by the minute. I wait expectantly, imagining what qualities make a good astronomer: patience, attentiveness, the will to watch and wait. I have a long relationship with this moon: with its fullness passing my bedroom window; its reed-slender crescent welcoming me to summer fields and frost-clad pastures of winter. Now, like a globular organism, it oozes over the horizon, sitting fat and sluggish, before climbing into the sequinned sky.

Collecting itself, the orb breaks free of its moorings, now, transformed into a copper penny, then a glowing sovereign, as it sets sail. Then, as I watch, the symmetry is broken, and its rim buckles inwards. A shadow eats progressively into the sphere, tinting the bite all russet. After breathless moments the transformation is complete, and the moon pauses, a copper orb, surreal and unworldly. As I watch, spellbound, all round me the night pauses too, witnessing the spectacle. Then the earth’s shadow moves on, and a pale sliver of fullness returns, broadening with each breath. So soon the magic is passed and the world draws a long, reverential breath.

The sovereign resumes its steady climb, dazzling nearby stars, and its soft light downy on my skin. I am lost in worship; my mind journeys far and my heart feels stretched to its limits. For these few moments I feel a whole, pure peacefulness, entirely free of the bigger world. A door opens and I step through. There is no return and I’m sure of it.

Thoughts reach my limbs and there is cool air on my face. I return from my trance to this world of childhood: sitting in a house in a tree, bathed in moonlight.

Even in play, children can learn skills that will serve them lifelong. I consider myself most fortunate to have a father who had the patience and nature to support a girl-child in a man’s realm. I dedicate this story to him.

I rinse the milking machines in a steaming trough of hot water and then dismantle the separator, washing each of its disks, before leaving them to drain. Everything is made of stainless steel and it’s heavy and noisy in here, with steam fogging up the washroom window. But, outside there is a frost, and I’m glad to be warm. After helping dad in the dairy I plan to ask him about something that’s been on my mind for months.

I dry my hands on my pants and duck back out to find him. ‘Dad. Dad?’ Damn, he’s gone.
Out in the yard I scan the machinery sheds, but there’s no movement. Just then I catch his silhouette in the workshop and, ducking beneath the cypress tree, I arrive, puffing at the door. ‘Dad?’
‘Mmm?’ He has a gadget set up in the vice for sharpening saw blades.
Here goes, I caution myself. ‘I was wondering if it’s okay for me to make a tree house.’
He looks up.
Guessing his question, I continue. ‘Up in the low cypress near the front gate.’
He frowns.
‘The tree next to the Aloe Vera?’
‘Ah…yes.’ He continues adjusting the device without further comment, still thinking.

Finally, he speaks. ‘What are you planning to make it with?’
I anticipate this, too. ‘Some of that timber stacked between the machinery shed and the hedge. You know the old fence posts and stuff?’
He hears the hopeful tone in my voice and doesn’t want to disappoint me. ‘Hee!’ he sighs, the way he does when there’s a decision at hand. ‘They’re not for scrap, Jo. I might need them as spares. But you can use the ones stacked near the saw bench: those posts, the old sleepers and scraps, you’re welcome to use them.’
‘Great.’ I’m delighted, but there’s another request, as critical as the first. ‘May I borrow your tools, please? And use some nails?’
Again, silence.
‘Is that alright?’ I prompt.
His lips are pursed as he picks up the chain for sharpening. ‘I don’t mind you using the hammer,’ he agrees, ‘and there are some four and six inch nails you’re welcome to use.’ He prods a crop of cans on the bench. ‘But I’m concerned about the saw.’ He pins my gaze. ‘I don’t want you ruining the blade. You stripped one making that cart of yours.’
He refers to the primitive skateboard I use when looking for olivine along the driveway.

A line of saws bristle from nails on work shop wall. Some belong to grandad.
‘You must’ve hit some nails in the wood. There were bent teeth, and others were entirely broken.’
I’m distressed by this. It’s the first I’ve heard about it. ‘I’m really sorry, dad. I had no idea.’ I feel ashamed for failing to notice. Dad takes great care of his tools and I’ve been careless. ‘I promise I will check for nails and wire in future,’ I assure him. ‘And I’ll pull them out with the claw hammer and pliers.’

He smiles, pleased that I understand.

‘So would it be all right, then? And some rope?’
‘What do you want a rope for?’ He’s irritated, now.
‘To pull the bits of wood up into the tree. The fork is about eight feet off the ground.’
‘You’ll need a pulley for that.’
He fits his front teeth together and blows through them. ‘Listen. How about this? When you’re ready to lift, tell me and I’ll come and help you.’
‘Of course. Thanks. Is it okay about using a saw? May I borrow one?
‘Yes. But use the ripping saw, that one with big teeth for cutting rough timber.’
‘Okay.’ I thank him again.

‘Jo,’ he calls me back. ‘Does mum know what you’re up to?’
‘It’s sort of a secret. I don’t want her carrying on about it. I’ll be careful, I promise.’
He understands. Mum can be overly protective and fussy.
‘Okay,’ he agrees. ‘But ask for my help when you need it, or I’ll get the blame.’
‘Don’t worry, I will.’

I slip out the door to the harness room. From a selection of ropes hanging off pegs, I reach for my favourite, and bury my nose in coils still redolent of hay and grease. Looping it over my shoulder, I close the door and skip down to the woodpile.
‘Jo?’ Dad calls again.
‘Yep?’
He’s standing in the workshop doorway. ‘It’s a good spot for your house. I wondered when you’d think of it. And much safer than hammocks. Closer to the ground,’ he grins.
‘Aw, but you haven’t been up in the hammock. How would you know? Anyway, I tie myself in. You should take a look one day.’
‘Not likely. I’m too old and stiff for climbing trees.’

I turn to the wood stack and begin rummaging, setting aside pieces for the joists and studs. A couple of posts need trimming, and there are bolts and nails in weathered gate pieces. But I’m keen. After all, this is for my own house. Digging around in the pile has left me thristy, After making my selection, I stroll up to the tank, haul off my jumper,tie it round my waist and squat to drink straight from the tap.

Back at work I roll my shirt sleeves up a few folds, studying my selection of wood again. Suddenly Dad is there beside me with two claw hammers and a large pair of pliers. Without discussion, we set to work, hauling out the long, rusty and well-embedded six inchers. While I’m busy with the last of them, dad returns to the sheds, returning with his chainsaw.
‘I’ll trim off these rotten ends for you. Much easier than with a saw.’
I nod appreciatively, grimacing expectantly as he pulls the chord. The chainsaw blares into life with a racking roar, coughing white smoke.

God, what a noise. I step back as he revs the machine, sending more smoke billowing. He sets the first post on the chopping block, and shears off the rotten end in a couple of seconds. Kicking it aside, he reaches for the next, squinting while he works, the chainsaw growling its way through the log, spewing blood-red sawdust over his boots. The resinous smell reminds me of long autumn afternoons helping dad at the saw bench, cutting up tree branches ready for chopping firewood.

Finally he releases the throttle and kills the rowdy saw. My ears are still ringing.
He returns my grin, ‘How’s that?’
‘Flamin’ fantastic!’
‘Well, it’s up to you now. Grab some harvesting gloves to haul these posts. Save yourself some skin and splinters. If you load them into the wheelbarrow and tie them down, you get them up there in a couple of trips.’
‘Brilliant, dad! Really.’ I glow with appreciation, touched by his thoughtfulness, and the sheer pleasure of working with him. Inclusion in farm work makes me feel worthy and loved. I’ve seen other girls’ dads shoo their daughters away from tools and machines, but mine invites me to help and learn. And he always explains the risks and techniques patiently, encouraging me to have a go.

We carry the tools back to the workshop.
‘What are you using for walls?’
My mind goes blank. I haven’t given it a thought and say so. But he has an idea, and leads me round the side of the stable to a stack of old boards.
‘Remember these? They came from the old toilet we had here.’ I look puzzled, so he explains. ‘I suppose that’s before your time. Grandad and I pulled it down after we built the flushing toilet at the side of the house.’
The ‘new’ toilet seems old to me. It was where I discovered the National Geographic a few years back, and I assumed it was as old as the house. But then, I remind myself, I am only eleven.

Dad smiles, pleased. ‘Thought these would come in handy one day. Help yourself, only don’t forget the nails.’
‘No worries,’ I assure him. ‘It’s going to be some house, dad. I might put in a door. Perhaps even a window.’
‘Wouldn’t be a bad idea. And there’s a door here. Look,’ he points. Propped against the shed wall is a small door, equally weathered. ‘That was the trapdoor at the back of the toilet, where we pulled the pan out to empty it. Bet it’s seen some history!’ he chuckles. ‘You’ll need new hinges though.’ He straightens, hiking his grip on the chainsaw. ‘Well, this thing isn’t going to sharpen itself.’
I’m elated at the way my plan has come together, and dance a jig on the spot. Obviously there’s a right time for everything, and I’m right on the button.

Carrying timber on the wheelbarrow isn’t such a good idea. Eventually the whole load tips and twists over. So, I carry the planks, one at a time, tied to the seat and handlebars of my bike. Parked adjacent to the tree, I can slip each one through the fence wires. When the last is unloaded, I gather the tools I need under Dad’s watchful eye. He offers a nod of approval as I select a medium-toothed saw, and load up my bike basket.
‘Very satisfactory,’ he says at last.

Just then, mum appears on the back veranda, wheeling out a load of washing in a trolley. ‘Jo,’ she calls. ‘Come and help me peg this out will you, I’ve got another load inside.’
Damn, I think. What was that about timing?

I scoot my bike across the yard and rest it against the palings. Mum returns to fetch the second load. I grab a bed sheet, shaking it clear to throw high over two wires of the rotary clothesline.
I’m straightening it when she returns.
‘Just the one wire for each, dear,’ she says, briskly. ‘It’s a big wash, four sheets and towels.’
I anchor the wash with the clumsy wooden pegs, working swiftly, eager to get back to my project before she ropes me in on other chores. The damp linen chills my fingers.
‘How come Nick’s never round when there are chores?’ I ask.
‘Don’t know. He set off straight after breakfast. Think he’s working on that motorbike down at Ian’s.’ She’s referring to old house, in the block beyond our bottom paddock, near the fox den.

Now she peers through the fence at my bike, and curiosity gets the better of her. ‘What’s all that stuff for?’
I should’ve expected this. ‘Um,’ I think fast. ‘I’m making a bird-hide in one of the trees so I can watch birds without frightening them.’ Now I’ll really have to make one!
‘Does dad know you’ve got his tools?’
‘Yeah.’ I look at her defensively. ‘I asked him this morning.’
‘Okay.’ She fails to hide her concern. ‘It’s just that he was cross after you damaged one of his saws awhile back.’
‘Yeah, I know about that, mum. He mentioned it. I know what I did wrong and I’ve promised to be careful.’
This seems sufficient and she changes subject. ‘I’m going into town after lunch, to return the libraries and do a bit of shopping. I’ve an appointment for the hairdresser, too, so I won’t be home till four. Do you want to come with me?’ She uses a hopeful tone. ‘You might like to visit Elizabeth.’
‘Thanks mum, but I don’t think she’s home. She said something about going to Peterborough for the holidays.’
‘That’s a pity, dear. What about the library, then?’
‘I’ll give that a miss, too, thanks. I’m reading a Cherry Ames book from school.’
‘Are you enjoying it?’
‘Not sure. Well, yes I suppose. It’s a romance: just doctors, nurses and stuff. My friends are reading them and so I thought I’d take a look.’
Mum smiles. She knows I’m not impressed. ‘I think you could find better.’
With all the washing out, I head for my bike and mum seems content to let me go.

Arriving at my construction site, I grab some branch trimmings from a pile at the foot of a neighbouring tree and drag them across to a cypress where I hastily construct a bird hide. It offers a surprisingly good view of the eucalyptus trees dad planted with the first rains last spring. The chooks are scratching beneath them.

I return to my tree and assess how I will haul the timber, and where to place it. While Nick disapproves of my building techniques, I think dad finds them intriguing. I plan things out as I go. He calls it improvising. It’s worked so far, and when I do get stuck there’s plenty of advice on offer,evev if it is at the end of a put-down. I assume it’s just the way men are, pointing out inadequacies in what females do and then demonstrating their superiority by fixing them. I don’t care much for politics: I get help, they get their pride polished. I think it’s amusing.

‘That’s the girl’s way,’ Nick would jibe. ‘Don’t know what you’re bloody doing till it’s too late.’ I smile now, recalling his derision. I know better than to bite. At least I’m prepared to have a go. Anyway, Nick and I rarely share compliments. Our whole childhood has been a game of one-upmanship, and he usually wins. But it never stops me trying. In fact, it makes me all the more determined.

Hopping down, I untangle the rope from my bike basket and tie one end in a slipknot round the first post. Donning over-sized gloves I haul the post over to the trunk. Throwing the rope end up into the fork, I follow it, clambering up into the tree. From there I pull, but the post end catches in a fold on the trunk, and then again on a branch stump.
‘Not good,’ I hiss under my breath. I don’t want to reach out further, for fear of hurting my back. I toss the rope over another branch, above me, and pull again. But the bark grabs and the rope won’t slide.
‘Damn!’ I snarl in irritation. There are no smoother limbs. I climb down, trying to push the post up, but it won’t stay in place. ‘Bloody gravity,’ I curse aloud, squatting at the foot of the tree to rest. Finally I admit defeat.

I power down the driveway, skidding to a dramatic halt at the workshop door. It’s been a long morning, nearly lunchtime, and dad is refitting the chain onto the saw.
‘Dad, I’m having trouble getting the posts into the tree.’
He looks up, not at all surprised.
‘They’re sticking on the trunk when I pull, and won’t stay in place when I push. I need your help after all, please.’
‘Just let me get this done, dear, and clean up. Then I’ll come and help you. Don’t try any more. Tell you what. You choose your want from the dunny site, and pull those nails out while you’re waiting.’

Hope returns and soon I’m busy with hammer and pliers, straightening and clawing a crop of rusty nails. The boards are thin but strong, their grain ridged and greyed by weathering, almost like driftwood. I load up my bike, making three trips, and stack them out of sight behind the trunk. With the last load, I grab a tin of shorter nails.

Dad strolls up the driveway and climbs through the fence. He inspects the site and soon, with infuriating ease, lifts all the posts up into the fork, creating a neat pile across two of the three stout branches that are my foundations.
‘Mmm. Nice spot,’ he says. ‘You can see across the whole farm from up there. And sunrises.’
‘Moonrises too, I expect.’
‘Lovely.’ He peers into the canopy. You might have to thin those smaller branches if you want any height to your house,’ he suggests. ‘You know where the pruning loppers are, don’t you?’
‘Yep. But I don’t think I’ll make it full height, just enough to stand in, like the doll’s house. I mean, it’s a tree house, not a stately mansion.’
The bell rings and mum cooees for lunch.
‘Hoy!’ dad calls.
‘Still a secret, dad?’
‘Is with me.’

With the dishes done, I climb back on my bike and head to work. Up in the fork I prepare the joists and nail them in place, humming to myself as I work: the same refrain over and over. The mailman comes but I don’t budge. A van stops, and the baker places a Vienna loaf in the bread tin. I can almost smell the poppy seeds; imagine the warm crust yielding to a breadknife, the lashings of butter and mulberry jam. But I keep working.

Husso’s bark alerts me to Nick’s return. He’s taken a shortcut through the paddocks. The dog strains on his chain, his tail waving as he springs on his back paws. I watch them from the tree. Nick pauses to pat the dog and then strides through the yard. Damn! I don’t want him to know what I’m up to. He’ll spill the beans to mum just to get back on me. I lower the hammer and take a well-earned rest, watching him shuck off his boots at the back steps and disappear inside.

Afternoon sun freckles down through the cypress leaves. I peer up into the canopy, appreciating the spot I’ve chosen. Should’ve done this much sooner, I chide myself. Seated on my new floor, I explore its roughness with hands and eye. None of the timbers match in thickness or width, but it’s still a floor to me, and the first I’ve ever made. I feel grand. A real house of my own. Kneeling to one side, I repeat that same phrase over and over while trimming the floor’s edges with the saw.

It’s time to consider a framework for the walls and roof. The platform extends forwards, out over the trunk, about two yards square and very solid, though not quite horizontal. I brush the sawdust off and eye the remaining timber. My supply is depleted, but there are at least half a dozen good pieces at the dunny stack and dad said I should help myself.
Clambering down, I realise a ladder would be a real asset. A job for later, perhaps, and I consider its design as I amble down the horse paddock to the sheds. After rummaging through the pile again, I grab useful pieces and lumber armloads back passed two curious ponies, to my tree.

After installing the studs and rafters, I trim remaining sticks for the wall studs, and hammer them into place. It’s tricky because I’m not used to hammering in corners. Next, I decide where to place the doorway, whether to one side, where a ladder could go, or in the centre. There is little time left to nail wall boards with the air cooling fast to a frost. I load dad’s tools in my bike basket and return them to the workshop.

***

Dad has already left for the dairy, and has stoked the morning fire. The kettle sings with steam as I prepare tea for myself and mum, setting a biscuit in her saucer. After placing it on her bedside table I am assured of a day’s reprieve. I stand at the kitchen sink and look out at the haystack, where a shaft of sun has caught the edge of the bales, burnishing them briefly like gold bullion. The chill of the night’s frost creeps through my socks as I gulp the last few mouthfuls and rinse my cup.

Stepping into the crisp air, I pull my sleeves over my hands. Frosted grass crunches underfoot, and my bike tyres are fuzzy with ice. I swing onto the seat and cycle over to the sheds to collect the day’s tools. With the dunny trapdoor balanced on the basket, I walk the load up to my parking spot near the tree, pulling the door through the fence, and hiding it at the rear of the trunk.
Following a quick inspection, I decide I must have a ladder or steps, and lope down to collect more lengths from the woodpile. The timber is heavy and needs trimming, but it will do the job. After dragging it up through the paddock I prop one piece against the trunk. After trimming the rotting end, it will just reach the platform.

***

The finished ladder has what mum calls a rustic look, and is quite heavy. After fitting it in place, I make the inaugural climb, and sit with my back against the wall, admire my view. Fingers of sunlight reach through the cypress hedge and fall on frosted weeds at the foot of my tree. It’s a glorious moment. I realise I’m holding my breath, and laugh, the air vaporising in puffs before me.

As I’m not going to line the walls I decide to nail the wall boards flat so that they fit better and keep out the drafts. The third wall faces north, and begs a window. I haven’t a clue how to make one. I reach for a couple of off-cuts and experiment with them, but decide to make the frame separately. It’s a rough job. The corners aren’t quite square and it’s beyond my skill to make four panes. After installing a couple of noggins, top and bottom, I fit the window frame in. There’ll be no glass. I’ve decided to make a horizontal shutter, held open by a prop.

After breakfast and chores, I return to complete the walls, and then sit back to admire the room I’ve created. It feels such a cosy space, so private and luxurious. As I sweep scraps of wood and sawdust aside with a glove, my tummy tingles with wonder at what I’ve made.

Fitting the door is easier than expected. Trimming it to size, I add the new hinges dad left out for me, and slip down to the workshop for screws I’ve forgotten, and the bit and brace to drill holes.
On returning, I freeze. ‘What are you doing here?’
Nick’s bike rests against the fence and he’s standing on my ladder, peering into the house.
‘It’s my tree, too,’ he points out.
‘Yeah, but it’s my tree house!’
‘Okay, just looking. What are you gonna to do for a roof?
‘I’ll find something’ I bark impatiently, waiting for him to step down. But he continues up and, though livid, there is nothing I can do; he’s twice my strength.

I await the inevitable criticism but he offers none, climbing up through the ceiling and into the canopy. Obviously he’s going nowhere. I pull the door up the ladder and rest it on the veranda. Once inside I pull it through after me, still seething at my brother’s trespass.
‘Does mum know what you’re doing up here?’ he baits me.
‘Probably.’ I’m not playing his games.
‘She told me you were making a bird-hide.’
‘Well, I did,’ I snap, jabbing at the distant cypress. ‘Over there!
‘Does she know what’s up here, though?’
‘I imagine she’ll notice eventually, Nick, and if she doesn’t, I’m sure you’ll tell her.’
He is silent.

I continue my work, marking and drilling holes in the door post and door, and fitting the hinges. My hands are shaking with anger and it’s hard to concentrate with Nick watching me. I wish I had grabbed some discarded iron I’d spotted yesterday for a temporary roof. He climbs again, showering me with leaves and twigs, making his way down the rear of the tree, and landing on the ground with a thud.
‘Sometimes you actually amaze me,’ he says, climbing through the fence, and riding off. It’s the nearest to a compliment I’ll probably ever hear. I watch him head down the driveway. Instead of veering off to the house, he continues round the behind the sheds, and disappears. Perhaps my secret is safe.

Now I can concentrate, although I’m still shaking. Nosey bastard. He’d piss on it if he could get away with it. Can’t help himself. And sooner or later he’ll tell his mummy! I screw the hinge to the doorpost, supporting it with a wedge of wood so it will hang straight. At least I can hammer without fear of him hearing me, now. After fitting a sliding a bolt to the inside of the door, I take a breather on my veranda, legs dangling as I lean against the wall.

I contemplate negotiations with dad for roofing materials. Of all the corrugated iron collections, the nearest are two new off-cuts lying in the yard around the new hayshed, discarded by the plumber. Then there are sheets of rusty stuff, pushed down behind the brick pile, but they will be shot full of holes by the rifle.

I ride down into the yard. Dad’s not in the dairy, but the ute’s still there, and the tractor. Nick cleans his rifle in the workshop. I detect muffled sounds from the stable and soon dad appears.
‘Hoy, Jo. Be careful playing in the granary. I’ve just set fresh traps. Mention it to your mother, too. I might forget, will you?’
‘Yep.’
Nick appears beside me with the rifle draped over his arm. ‘Dad, I’m taking Husso rabbiting.’
‘All right. But stay away from McCullough’s. They’ve complained about you shooting near their dairy.
‘Righto. I’ll check the sights before I go.’
‘No, wait,’ I interrupt. ‘Before you do that! Dad, may I have the sheets of corrugated iron behind the target bricks? I need a roof for my house.’
‘They’ll be no good, Jo,’ Nick butts in. ‘They’re full of holes.’
‘He’s right, Jo. What about the sheets in the haystack paddock? They’re new.’
‘Can I have those!’ I can’t believe my luck. ‘They’ll be perfect, dad.’
‘Nick, go and bring them out for me, would you? I’ll get the tin snips, Jo.’

As dad hands me the snips, a rattle of iron announces Nick. I slip the cutters onto my belt.
Dad hands me the bigger sheet and slips the other in the loft, above the stable. ‘Will you be rightwith that?’ he asks, as I hoist the sheet on my head.
‘Yep. Thanks dad.’
‘How’d you go fitting that door?’
I look back in surprise.
‘You’ve taken the hinges and the drill’s gone,’ he explains.
‘Yep. Fitted the hinges okay and the doors fine. I’ll need a handle or catch of some sort but nails will do for now.
‘Well done. You’ll be right cutting that tin?’
‘Yeah. I’ll take it slow. Won’t be perfect, but it’s a tree house so it’s allowed to be wonky.’
He nods. ‘I’ll come and admire it when you’ve finished.’
‘Okay,’ I beam proudly. ‘Just remember it’s my first effort, okay?’ I carry the tin through the horse paddock where mum can’t see me, and head in for morning tea.

Getting the roof iron into the tree is awkward. The corners catch on things. But once up, it slides straight onto the rafters. I nail it into place and trim it. The snips work well for the first few corrugations, but sharp edges get in the way and I finish the job from the other side. I’ve allowed for wider eaves over the veranda and window.

Slithering back onto the veranda and in through the door, I’m eager to experience the magic of enclosure. Seated in the doorway there’s a proud smile across my face. This sense of achievement far exceeds my hammock. It’s a real place, and good enough to sleep in. I peer about. Eventually I’ll add the shutters and curtains, some shelves, lino on the floor, just like the doll’s house. But for now, this is enough. The only task remaining is the clean up and return the tools.

After lunch I borrow some furnishings from my cubby and cart them up to the tree house. With the floor swept and the chest of drawers, and table in place, I make a mental list of other items I’ll need: a blanket and pillow at least, the shelf and my favourite books, some National Geographics and my own utensils and tools.
Mum rings the bell for afternoon tea.
There’s a muffled, ‘Hoy!’ in reply.
Timing, I think, imagining a place somewhere, humming and busy, full of people organising, assigning time and projects to unsuspecting children like me. I wonder where you go to ask for things there.

SACRED & PROFANE

Often kids test the limits of rules and upbringing. My
cynicism seems a little premature. But then…. sometimes a child
can learn much from imagemistakes. Let
there be drama, tenderness and treasure in these three stories.
Aunt Esmé is visiting, and whether it is the way she entertains us,
giving mum time to relax, or some other quality within her, I can’t
say. Only that the family changes for the better when she is here.
Mum says she is a maiden aunt, but I’m unsure what that means,
whether she’s a real aunt, or one of mum’s old school friends. I
don’t really understand about aunts and cousins. Like grandad, she
travels by train from Melbourne, bringing very little luggage, and
yet manages to dress with variety every day, as if, like The Magic
Pudding, her suitcase is endowed with strange, bottomless
qualities. However, what intrigues me the most about Esmé is her patience; her calm moderation, an elusive and inexhaustible kind of
saintliness, far too improbable to be genuine. All mum’s contemporaries have strong, definable personalities. They are loud, haughty, cultured or cantankerous, but Esmé has a deep stillness, a presence that sits back and observes, neither judging nor malicious. And while I appreciate her gentleness, I am puzzled by my loathing of her sweet and irritatingly genuine kindness. She must be around the same age as mum, though leaner and fair, with a fine skin free of blemishes and lines. Her long grey hair is the only feature that betrays her age, and she wears it in a chignon, skilfully caught up with silver pins and combs. Even her room has absorbed her persona, the cool green and walnut brightening to Mediterranean turquoise and gold, and there’s a fragrance of lavender, sweetened by fruitiness, perhaps roses or gardenias.
Outwardly she is what I would call matronly: an ideal Presbyterian Sunday school teacher and while she exudes a familiar elegance, she
speaks with an accent, the lilt of something Scandinavian. I always forget to ask her about that until she’s gone. Then her presence rises from the furnishings and resonates through the house. I’m sure Esmé is more accustomed to city life. Her clothes are quiet yet stylish, the colours muted but expensive. And her hands are soft, unstained by soil or labour. I wonder again if she is a teacher but forget to ask, as if she has cast a spell over my curiosity.

Each morning she appears in an elegant, pale green dressing gown, with her hair cascading in a long braid. She sits across the table from me, her blue eyes clear and untroubled, and when she smiles her whole face surrenders to the joy of it. After I leave, she sits with mum for a second cup of coffee. There are always a few hours free in the morning. Esmé likes to sit on the veranda, reading her newspaper or a book. But she is pleased to see me and smiles in welcome as I approach. I invite her for a walk around the yard to show her my latest projects: the hiding places, the toys and treasures, all new since her last visit.

Our chatter is unfaltering as we cross muddy pools, climb through fences or gates, and her passage is accomplished with the grace of a
gentlewoman. I am intrigued, curious, and even suspicious. How can there be a female in this house who is so genuinely nice? There has
to be a catch, a dark side, some weakness soon to give way. I believe the only way to rid myself of these misgivings is to set a
test for her, to confirm my suspicions, once and for all.

My brother, Nick, and dad are busy in the machinery shed and I invite Esmé to walk with me down through the farm. I want to show her my archery game. We open the wide gate, and enter the paddock. I fire my first arrow and collect it as we walk. I guide her towards the rabbit paddock. Once through the fence we continue to the L-shaped stand of pines, and weave among their craggy trunks. I show her the rabbit warren. She is delighted to find pinecones and gathers some for the sitting room fire.

‘They smell so lovely,’ she declares, ‘and they leave heaps of glowing coals.’

She tells me of her childhood then, of a time she calls The Great Depression.

‘Such simple things as fuel and meat were scarce,’ she explains.

I suggest we return later with a bag to collect more of them, as an armful will hardly suffice. Esmé agrees and leaves her collection at the foot of a tree. We continue down to the hawthorn hedgerow where I play the first half of my game. On the return journey, I show her the dwarf pine tree and tell her of last summer’s harvest. As we approach the cattle yard, I lead her on a detour through a small paddock, deliberately failing to inform her about its only resident, a surly Aberdeen Angus bull.

Well into the field, I suddenly take off, sprinting to the fence, and yelling, ‘See ya!’ as I slip through the wires. I dash passed the dairy and only when I’m safely across the gate do I peer back over my shoulder. Unaware of danger, Esmé continues across the paddock, neither hurried nor troubled by my departure. I climb into the fork of the big cypress and watch her approach to the gate, studying her face for signs of agitation. None. Impossible! She passes beneath me and continues towards the house, her gentle smile, and even unfaltering. As I watch her approach the garden gate, I realise what a stupid prank I’ve played. Having failed to reveal her imperfections, I have left myself open to ridicule. I feel foolish and embarrassed. How can I face her now and explain my spurious, erratic behaviour?

‘Christ!’ I mutter, grimacing at my own stupidity. Already she’ll be telling mum of my desertion in the middle of the bull paddock. How can I get out of this? I pace the lower half of the yard, where sheds obscure me from the house but, the longer I wait, the harder it becomes to justify my actions.

Finally, with the imperious ring of the lunch bell, I realise I must face up to mum’s recriminations. I kick off my boots and go straight into the laundry to wash. Mum and Esmé are seated at the table in the kitchen. Their voices give no clue of their conspiracy to nab me. I take longer than normal, tidying my hair and straightening my clothes. With my heart pounding, I enter the kitchen. My eyes meet Esmé’s quizzical frown.

‘I’m sorry,’ I blurt, ‘I’m sorry I ran off, Auntie Esmé. I really needed to go to the toilet.’

‘That’s all right, dear. I thought it must have been something like that.’ She gives no indication of offence, and mum seems oblivious to the remark. So, she didn’t dob me in? Puzzled and deflated, I sit down and reach for my napkin. It is a normal lunch, with the usual conversation and the radio burbling in the background. While the others sit back, enjoying the last of their meal, I sweat in a pool of agony, cursing my own foolishness and dishonesty, for having destroyed any path to forgiveness. And there being no mention of the incident only adds to my frustration. Even later in the day, when we return to gather the pinecones with Nick, the subject remains aloof. Esmé is as patient, warm and gentle as ever; not a flicker or tone of disappointment, not a hint of distrust, no words of spiteful rapprochement. I will suffer for several years over this, until an opportunity arises and I confess to mum. But, instead of giving me a dressing down, she laughs heartily.

‘You mean she had no idea it was the bull paddock?’

‘Not as far as I know.’

She laughs again, all the more for realising the remorse I’ve suffered. ‘You do realise it was a silly thing to do?’ she adds, chuckling at the thought of it. But it’s not funny for me. I deserve a scolding and carry the shame as a festering wound. Aunt Esmé visits again, as sweet and sincere as ever. Shame mutes me, and I am unable to confess my guilt and disgrace.

* * *

image

 

After a few good years of rain and cool summers, the farm swarms with creatures, some engaging me for the first time. A ringtail possum has moved into one of my favourite hiding spots in the loft above the dairy cool room. At dusk, it makes its way across to the orchard via the cypress hedge, where it feeds on fruits and flowers. The lush pastures bring a plague of insects and seeds, drawing birds and rodents, easy pickings for the foxes, hawks and snakes. The rabbits make new burrows and on fine evenings, I sit on the wide gate, and watch them. Nick sools Husso after them, but dad’s patience is at an end.

‘Soon the blighters will be hopping around the blasted vegetable garden,’ he grumbles, bringing out his rifle for the cull.

‘Dad, teach me how to use the gun?’ Nick begs. Dad agrees, gives him lessons and supervises his practice. Nick rests the rifle on the clothes line fence, and fires at paper targets propped upon bricks at the hayshed. It seems a risky place for a rifle range. And, sure enough, late one afternoon a bullet whistles passed mum’s ear as she leaves the workshop with a basket of apples. Rifle practice moves to the paddocks where rabbits provide practical, living targets. Dad buys telescopic sights and helps Nick install and focus them.

After further practice and adjustment, the shoot begins in earnest. After dinner we pile into the ute and sit with my chin on the window ledge, watching while dad drives. Out on the tray, Nicks braces himself on the roof, yelling instructions as the headlamps and spotlight reveal prey. We wind around the paddock, scooping through shallow drains, bouncing over ridges and timber hidden beneath swathes of tall rye. The ute burbles and surges, grass brushing the undercarriage. I watch the bobbing white tails flag victims in the spotlight. We pause, and
Nick steadies himself, legs wide, leaning against the rear window of the cabin. I hold my breath, willing the rabbits to run, but they sit frozen mid stride, blinded and confused by the light. I grimace at the rifle crack. He misses several, but an hour’s shooting provides a brace of them, now dangling from Nick’s hand as he strides manfully to the big cypress tree.

Beneath the light of a pressure lamp dad teaches him how to butcher the tiny bodies, ripping away their skins. I flee to the house but their flesh arrives, still warm, and we enjoy a rich casserole of rabbit, bacon and rich gravy. I have to admit it’s delicious but baulk when dad
suggests we destroy the warrens.

‘But, dad! How can a dozen rabbits harm so many acres of farmland?’ I know my question is sentimental.
He shakes his head.

‘Couldn’t we leave their burrows alone and just  hunt them for food now and then?’ I persist.

‘Too many of them,’ he snaps. ‘It’s the height of their breeding season and they’re out of control.’ His response is harsh and he softens. ‘They’re vermin, dear. They don’t belong here. The Poms brought them.’

‘Along with foxes and Scotch thistles,’ mum adds. ‘They’re ruining the paddocks and undermining those old pines. They have to go.’

‘What if Nick and I dig the burrows out. Get rid of em that way?’ I suggest. ‘Then we can catch and eat em like this one.’ I scoop gravy onto a
piece of potato, waiting for Nick to agree. Dad thinks for a bit. He doesn’t like the idea, I can tell, but he’s prepared to give us an opportunity to learn.

‘All right,’ he decides. ‘But you must start this weekend. I don’t want the problem dragging on, or these nightly debates.’

‘Beauty,’ says Nick.

In the morning we head down to the rabbit paddock, me pushing a wheel barrow laden with digging tools and a bag for our quarry. Nick carries the rifle and Husso trots alongside. We choose a warren with fresh droppings nearby, and Nick sets to work on his side of the tree with a pick. I use the mattock, ripping into the soil. The tree roots are bone-jarring. Clearing my dig with the spade, I get down on all fours and scrape soil away. Blisters smart in my palms. The burrow continues, leading deeper. I rise and dig again, striking another tangle of roots. At first the mattock tears through them but soon it’s wedged tight, the blade buried in sinewy green wood.

While not a warm day, we’re sweaty and puffed from our exertions. I peel off my jumper and hang it over a branch. Husso noses in. There are
fresh rabbit smells everywhere and he’s mightily excited, waving his tail and whimpering as he pounces, feints and barks around our legs. I’ve produced quite a cavity on my side, revealing a seemingly endless burrow. I grope down inside it, keen to find soft fur and quivering whiskers. Nick pauses, leaning on his pick handle, watching.

‘Can’t feel a thing,’ I exclaim.

‘Stacks more places in there,’ he says, wiping his sweaty forehead on his shirtsleeve.

Tired and disappointed with my progress, I head round to inspect Nick’s efforts. He’s cleared a huge hole, cutting into the belly of the warren. ‘Should be kittens in there,’ he gasps between breaths.

‘What?’

‘Kittens. That’s what you call baby rabbits.’

‘I do?’

He kneels down and Husso bounds in to help.

‘Have you got your burrow blocked? He asks. ‘Cos if you haven’t the little buggers will get away.’

I scurry back and block the hole, stomping the spade across it emphatically. A couple of shattered tree branches prove useful down the other openings.

‘Get outa there!’ Nick growls at Husso, under his feet as reaches for the pick. I return to watch him dig. Huss waits, poised to leap. We
crouch now, expecting a rabbit to break any second. We’re so tense and focussed we fail to notice dad’s arrival.

‘How are you going?’ He startles us.

‘Nothing yet, dad,’ says Nick.

‘Huss looks keen. You think they’d be running in all directions with your digging.’
He stands to one side, hands on his hips, grinning down at our efforts.

‘Well we haven’t sighted one, yet.’ I add.

‘Let’s have a look.’ Dad steps down beside Nick and studies the gaping hole. ‘Reach in there and see if you can feel anything, Nick.’

He reaches down, groping as I had done.

‘Nothing,’ and his exasperation shows.
‘Times like this you need ferrets,’ says dad.

‘Maybe the neighbours have some,’ I suggest.

‘Don’t think so.’ Dad sounds pretty sure. ‘Let’s have a look around your side.’

Clambering over, dad extracts the spade. We watch him swing the pick, cutting through the earth, cutting it like cake. then he steps aside while Nick shovels the loose dirt away.

There’s movement behind the wood at the next burrow. Huss spots it first and pushes in, whining and digging frantically.

‘Stand aside, Huss,’ dad growls, but the collie ignores him. Nick grabs him by the collar, and pulls him back, inspecting the burrow.

‘Reckon we’ve got ‘im cornered now.’ He removes the plug of wood as dad plugs the other, and begins digging. I crouch behind him like a wicket keeper, while Huss winds back and forth, agitated and barking.

‘Gotcha!’ Nick shouts, throwing himself on a blur of brown. He rises in triumph, holding a struggling rabbit aloft by its scruff.

‘Gimme a look,’ I beg, but it’s too late. He’s snapped its neck with a vicious yank, and holds it for me to take, the head lolling on his arm. ‘One
rabbit ready for the pot!’ He declares.

I take it and sit nearby, placing the limp body on my lap, and arranging its limbs. The black eyes are still open, wide with shock. Its tail is damp where it’s wet itself in terror. I stroke the fur with my fingers, marveling at the tweedy colours made by so many shades of hair; the soft
creamy fur of its belly. Beneath wiry black whiskers the soft nose is still. Husso is of two minds: whether to sniff the prospective meal or wait for a fresh one. I watch the men work on, alternately digging and clawing roots and soil aside. I lean back on my arms, setting my teeth against the sting of broken blisters, the rabbit draped across my lap.

Upon reaching the heart of the warren, the men call it quits.

‘I find it hard to believe there’s only one rabbit in all of this,’ Nick declares, his voice rough with thirst
and disappointment.

‘There’ll be burrows we’ve missed,’ dad reassures him. ‘Let Huss in. See what he thinks.’ Nick stands back and Husso digs keenly. With hope renewed, Nick hauls him back out of the way, and resumes digging.

‘There’s nothing there now,’ says dad, finally. Nick wanders off to cool down and have a pee. On his way back he calls out.

‘Hoi! Over here!’

Placing the rabbit on my jumper, I hurry to where the men are inspecting something on the ground: another burrow, an old one, but still in use.

‘Little buggers got out here, I reckon,’ Nick spits, slipping the spade into the soil above the hole and stomping it home with his boot. Here the tree roots are sparse and the digging easier. ‘Look! It heads back over there to our dig. Clever little bastards.’ He’s scornful, shaking his head
in defeat.

‘That’s their escape tunnel.’ Dad purses his lips. ‘I don’t think we’ll make a dint in the population at this rate. I’ll start baiting them. And that means,’ he warns, looking across at me. ‘That means, madam, there’s to be no more digging down here.’
‘In fact you can both stay away for a few weeks. You don’t want myxo.’

We nod solemnly, both disappointed. I feel the chance to hold a live rabbit slipping away. Returning to the dig I collect our tools in the barrow, and place our prize on top of the load. Then, sliding the gear into the ute tray, I hop up and haul the barrow after me. I sit there, watching the men talking, my right hand resting against the rabbit’s ears, reaching for their softness and caressing them. I try to pull the eyelids closed, like I’ve seen cowboys do in the movies, but they open again. Perhaps gas or baits are kinder than this.

‘Kinder to you, maybe,’ I growl at myself. I feel as empty as those eyes.

*****

After a fortnight, we follow dad down the paddocks to inspect the warrens. I expect the stink of dead rabbits, but the only evidence of is the absence of new burrowings.

Then Nick calls. ‘Dad!’ There is urgency in his voice.
We gather round boxthorn. Nick indicates a small hole, freshly dug, and well hidden beneath the thorny tangle. So easy to miss.

‘So much for eradication,’ dad sighs. ‘Missed it, somehow.’ He scratches the crown of his head, clearly annoyed. While I appreciate his frustration, I release a quiet sigh of relief. The farm won’t be the same without rabbits bobbing about. We stare down at the freshly dug soil. ‘They’re industrious little coots, aren’t they?’ Nick shakes his head, knowing how hard it is to dig a hole with a pick, let alone small furry paws.

‘Well,’ says dad. ‘Can’t stand around here all day.’

I remain as the others return to the ute.

‘Coming Jo?’ dad calls.

‘Na. Think I’ll walk, thanks.’ I wander round the stand of pines. The ground is riven by protruding roots, and scabby pinecones in all states of decay. There must be half a century of tree bits under my feet. I try to imagine grandad planting the saplings long ago and now, standing fifty feet tall, with craggy bark as thick as my arm, they still provide shelter and shade. I sniff the resin on my fingers and stand, heading for the fence. But something catches my eye: a green pinecone, perhaps. I reach to pick it up, to throw it back but, peering closer, I see it is a small rabbit crouching motionless in the grass. At first I’m unsure whether to touch it, and kneel down slowly. The creature is panting, its eyes almost closed, and there is a damp line where tears have run down and soaked its fur. Odd. It doesn’t run away? I reach out and rest the back of my fingers against its side. It tenses a little, but remains.

Unable to resist, I reach forward and pick it up, resting the feet on the palm of my hand. It seems incredibly placid for a wild rabbit, its nose twitching with each breath, as if it’s daydreaming or dosing. I hold it up for a closer look, my hands ready should it leap and fall. There is a feeling wetness pooling in my palm, and it trickles down my arm. Astonished, I lift the bunny gently to see what’s happened. Its head falls to one side, the body warm and limp, dead in my hands.
Back in the kitchen, the family is gathered for morning tea.

‘What’ya got, Jo?’ Nick reads the look on my face.

I can’t reply. My lips and chin are clamped tight, my eyes tearful.

‘What’s wrong?’ He spots my arm pressed against my jumper. ‘Have you hurt yourself? What happened?’

Mum and dad turn to see.

I sit down. ‘Oh, look,’ mum croons. ‘A baby rabbit.’

Nick comes round to peer over my shoulder. ‘It’s dead,’ is all I manage, unable to separate my words from the pain.
‘It’s only a rabbit,’ dad snorts.

I pull gently at its ears, willing warmth and life to return. Amidst all the fuss, the spirit of the hapless creature is pulling at mine and I don’t want to let go.

‘Reckon myxo’s got it, dad,’ Nick determines. ‘Look. Its eyes and nose are all runny.’

As I shield the hapless creature from the profanity of their discussion, only mum understands, and scrounges for a shoebox, lining it with tissue paper. She places it on the table in front of me and everyone watches as I place the rabbit in. Fitting the lid I stare down at the box, solemn, silent and tearful.

‘Better go and wash your hands, dear,’ mum suggests.

I nod. ‘It wee’d on me.’

‘Probably frightened,’ dad says. ‘Where’d you find it?’

‘On the grass. Out in the open. Didn’t even move when I picked it up. Just wee’d on me and died.’

I hear the murmur of their voices as I wash my hands. I re-enter the kitchen, and as I button up my clean shirt I realise, ‘Myxo’s catching, isn’t it dad?’

‘Not humans, no. Only rabbits.’

‘Good. I don’t want to know how that rabbit felt.’

‘Yes,’ he agrees. ‘Must be nasty. Bit like the flu, I’m told.’

‘Where are you going to bury it, Jo?’ Nick wants to help. I hadn’t thought that far.

Mum places the box on the hearth.

‘Perhaps in the orchard,’ he suggests.

‘Yeah,’ I agree. ‘That’d be nice.’ I sit down. ‘Under the mulberry tree. Lots of fresh grass shoots there for a rabbit spirits.’

Everyone smiles and a respectful silence descends.

*****

Nick watches on as I dig the hole. ‘There’ll be no ceremony or cross.’, I explain.’Well, we don’t know if it’s a Christian rabbit, do we?’
I place the box in the bottom of the hole. Not too deep, I remind myself. Room for it to dig its way out, if it’s not really dead. I haven’t buried a creature before, and make it up as I go. I look at Nick. I haven’t a clue what to say. He shrugs. We fall into an
awkward silence, staring at the mound of soil, but soon get giggly and silly.

* * * * *

THE EGYPTIAN

THE
EGYPTIAN
( Essentially this story addresses issues of prejudice. And, while the following is autobiographical, I remind readers that I have taken every care not
to offend persons or institutions identified, and have related the
events as truly and accurately as I remember them, omitting some
facts that may be seen to offend or defame.)

Introduction: I have been curious as
long as I remember. Always seeking to understand how other people think and feel. After entering high school I began to explore ideas as well as facts. Part of my journey from child to adult, from observation to experience. My discoveries in this chapter continue to have a great influence and meaning in my life. While my parents
provide me with abundant resources as a means of learning and understanding the world in which I live, there are occasions when they push me a little too far…
Having evaded initial attempts to
shunt me off to boarding school in Ballarat for third form, we compromise on a Melbourne school for my last two years of formal education. Our arguments are protracted and passionate, concluding with a verbal brawl over Saturday lunch.

‘I understand that you love your home and your friends, dear…’ mum patronises.

I wait for it, the catch: words that wedge their way, like bracken, into the bedrock of my childhood.

‘…but, there’s more to the world than this.’ She indicates the kitchen.

There it is: the But. I pounce, thumping the table with the heel of my fist. ‘Than what? Than my home, where I belong? Where my friends
live? This,’ I also indicate the kitchen, ‘is where I want to be!’
‘But there are more opportunities for you.’

‘What’s wrong with Terang High? I’m doing well here. And just when I’ve settled in again, and feel like I’m getting somewhere in life, you decide to derail me; despatch me off to some poncy girls’ school!’ I ram my serviette into its ring. ‘Some people don’t need the best opportunities to make the most of their lives, mum!’

‘Perhaps, dear, but MLC will develop you in ways Terang cannot.’

This smacks of betrayal and ingratitude. ‘Like what for example?’

‘Well, you’ll get some refinement and that will boost your confidence.’ Mum puts down the plate she’s holding. ‘Listen dear; a few feminine graces won’t do you any harm. Anyway, there’s nothing for you here on the farm.’

I’m appalled. ‘What do you mean nothing? This is my home!’

‘Yes, for now. But not for the rest of your life.’

‘Why not?’ I swallow hard, staring through her to that somewhere in my future. I’ve never thought beyond the farm. I assume I’ll return here after school. ‘But this is where I want to be.’ My voice is thin and hurt stings my eyes.
Neither of us speak for a few minutes. Mum clears the table and I flick through a newspaper, snapping pages angrily. My mind rages, the ground falling away as I feel time tighten around my throat.

Mum leans on dad’s chair and sighs. ‘Jo, your brother doesn’t want to take over the farm. You know dad can’t manage by himself anymore.’

I glare at her.

‘You know that, dear.’

My eyes well with tears. ‘But what about me?’

‘I don’t think this is your future, do you?’ Her voice thickens with tenderness, rekindling my anger.

‘So you’ll sweep home out from under me as well? And for what? So I can be a lady with airs and graces? Then what? Airs and graces don’t
put food on the table, do they?’ There’s an unpleasant edge to my voice and I glare at her darkly. ‘It’s hardly probable, is it: me with airs and graces?’

‘Well, that’s for you to decide. Perhaps nursing is better for you. You’ve always been caring and attentive. But you need good school results for that, and Terang can’t do that for you.’

‘Ttaa!’ I spit disdainfully as she persists.

‘Terang can’t offer you elocution lessons, music, literature…’

‘Mum, what’s the use of elocution lessons…’ but she overrides me.

‘…nothing comparable to MLC. Listen, dear…’ She’s probing, reading my agitation, seeking leverage. ‘You could be part of their long
choral tradition. You love singing and music. The best in Australia teach at that school. You can even study towards law or to be a
diplomat. You know there are many women who’ve made a fine start in life from MLC. I was a student there.’

Yeah? And look where that got you! I sneer inwardly. ‘Huh! So, your fine friends are just the best available, are they? Are they really good enough for you, mum? Cultured enough, well-read?’

Mum sighs, her face flushing with exasperation. ‘If you’re going to talk like there’s nothing more to say, Jo. MLC offers opportunity and Terang doesn’t. And you’ll boost your chance of a place at university from a better school.’

I shake my head, still glaring at her. How the Christ would you know what I need, you snobby bitch! I know it’s pointless to argue, but I can’t resist one final jibe. ‘That’s right, mum. Walk all over me. Just like you do dad and Nick. You’ve planned my life out for me, haven’t you?’ I push away from the table. ‘Oh, yes. And you’ll appear to listen to what I have to say and how I feel, but you’ll go ahead and do what you bloody well like, anyway, won’t you?’ My mouth twists in a sneer of contempt and I rise to leave, before I say something I can’t take back,
dumping the crumpled TV guide on mum’s place at the table.

*****

My first day of high school begins in an abrasive mood. We’ve waited fifteen minutes for our new form teacher. He was introduced at school
assembly and the response was subdued, kids peering at him, curious, some offering derogatory remarks. But he intrigues me. With a name like Abdel Rahman he has to be an Arab, and arab means all things Egyptian to me. I roll the words over my tongue like a lozenge. Finally the door of our prefab room opens. We turn as one: the principal leading our teacher.

‘Class,’ Mr Hocking begins. ‘I would like to introduce you to your new form teacher and science teacher, Mr Abdel Rahman.’

The new arrival stands silently, neatly dressed, and very upright – almost standing to attention. He scans the class, and nods his greeting with a rueful smile.

‘Well.’ Mr Hocking turns to his new recruit. ‘I’ll leave you to it then.’

Mr Abdel Rahman nods again, smiling nervously as he watches the principal depart. Turning to the blackboard, he glances along the ledge for a stick of chalk, and then writes his name for us to see. His hair is curly and very short. Perhaps a military influence. And the suit looks foreign, with a crisp shirt white against tanned skin, although not quite as dark as that of the Indian couple who’ve taught here several years.
He turns to face us. ‘Good morning, class.’ His accent is strong but intelligible. ‘I do apologise for being late. There were some last minute things to attend to. This is my first day here, you know.’ He smiles again, inviting our welcome, but the silence is awkward. Reaching across the front row of desks, he lifts a chair effortlessly, placing it between himself and a table, and he removes his coat, arranging it thoughtfully over the back of the chair, and sits down. Opening the roll book he begins the first task of the year. As he reads through the list of names, he places a tick beside each as we reply in turn. As we speak, he looks up and studies our faces.

‘This guy can’t even speak English properly,’ mutters a boy from the back row. ‘So how’s he s’posed to teach us anything?’ Others giggle and there is a pause until we settle. The school bell saves him from further trouble. We’re dismissed, and troop out noisily to our first lesson. I have studied him through this ritual, and suspect he’s never taught before, at least not in Australia.

Mum has more information after school. She is the relief librarian, now, whilst the official one takes long-service leave, and picks up useful gossip from the staff room. ‘He’s from Egypt,’ she says. ‘Just graduated from university, with a degree in science, Entomology, I think.’ ‘What’s his first name?’ ‘Um.’

Mum thinks a moment. ‘Abdul-something. I can’t remember all of it.’

There’s a brief silence as I digest these facts.

Then mum continues: ‘Perhaps he doesn’t want to be involved in war between Arabs and Israelis.’

I’ve read about the Six Day War and know Egypt copped a hiding. And now I’m intrigued. I try to imagine the huge step he’s taken, leaving his family, his country and culture behind because of war. I’ve never met anyone like this before. While papers and the TV feature stories about refugee camps, revolutions and coups, Terang seems a long way from the face of the world.

One morning during class assembly a back row boy asks the Egyptian a rather impertinent question.

‘Sir, is your first name Abdel and your surname Rahman?’

He smiles, obviously not offended, turns and writes his full name on the board before explaining. ‘It’s not quite that simple’ and taps the board. ‘The first Abdel is my given name. The rest is my father’s name. It’s a tradition in Egypt for sons to carry their father’s name as part of
their own.’ There are difficult days for our teacher. He seems hesitant, unsure how to conduct classes let alone keep rowdy teenagers in  order. And his inability to follow the class curriculum leads to unmerciful treachery. We want to know about  Egypt, not science. After admitting he is an entomologist, he agrees to provide some lessons about insects. The familiar ground earns him respect and a reprieve, but he continues to struggles, clearly uncomfortable.

Finally, on a day when our class will no longer be silenced by his stern requests for order, I have had enough.

‘Shut up!’ I demand, standing abruptly at my desk. He looks on, astonished, and quite unsure what to do. I give my class mates a verbal lashing, castigating them for their lack of respect for someone trying to do their best.

‘But he can’t even teach,’ someone howls from the back.

‘He can teach if you’d shut up and give him a chance!’ I’m furious.

‘You’re sticking up for him cos you like him,’ a girl taunts. Others laugh and jeer.
They’re probably right, but I won’t be swayed. ‘Shut up!’ I snarl, again. My fury leaves the class stunned. ‘I’ve seen you pull this stunt before with other teachers, treating them this way!’ Eyes scuttle with guilty looks: we all remember wearing down our art teacher, forcing her to resign with ill health. ‘Well, it’s not going to happen again,’ I declare. ‘Not while I’m in the class. And I’m not going anywhere for the remainder of this year.’ As the proverbial pin drops, I feel my face paling, after the initial flush of words. I stand tense, shaking with fury, my right fist  clenched, and a finger emphasising phrases towards troublemakers. For the first time in my life, I address my peers without fear, my voice clear and challenging. I have no idea where this comes from.

I pause, scanning the room. ‘Now! We are going to sit quietly for the remainder of this lesson and finish our work, and in every other class with this teacher we will do the same. That is the way it will be for the remainder of the year.’ In the thick silence I resume my seat. No one moves or dares speak. Mr Abdel Rahman leans forward at his desk. He doesn’t lose a beat, continuing from where he left off, as if the incident never occurred. But there is a difference now. The class remains attentive and respectful until the very last lesson of the year: as much a relief to him as his advocate. But Form Four have their last word with me outside the class, aiming jibes and cruel innuendos squarely, and the brunt of teasing is directed toward the crush I have on the Egyptian.

They use my mother’s teaching idiosyncrasies to ridicule me further.

‘Come on now, boys and girls,’ they cackle, mimicking mum’s attention-seeking clap.

But I am beyond their derision, impervious after years of bullying at home; this goading is nothing. My mind is way ahead, buzzing with new ideas. First I want to know all about Egypt, but I’m too shy to ask my teacher, so dad is my best resource.

Dad lifts two volumes down from the shelves. While he suspects the source of mystical breezes that fan my questions, he treats my thirst for knowledge as genuine. He opens the first: it contains glossy photos, maps and diagrams, everything I could possibly want to know about Egypt. The other is called ‘The Living Faiths’. It describes all the major world religions.

‘It’s heavy going,’ he warns, tapping the cover. ‘But there’s a good index. Use the table of contents. It’ll give you an idea where to head
initially.’

‘Thanks, dad.’ I accept the book and skim its opening pages. The chapter titles are cryptic.

‘So, there’s a chapter on Islam?’ ‘Yes.’ He leans over, studies the page briefly, and prods a line. ‘There! But don’t assume he’s a Muslim.’ ‘What?’ I hadn’t expected this. ‘Why? Why not?’I stammer.

‘Well, there are many religions in Egypt. Your teacher might be Christian. And there are many kinds of Christianity, other faiths, too. He could even be Jewish.’

‘But his name, dad?’

‘Even so. There are Jewish families in this district. Can you pick them by their names?’

‘Probably not,’ I admit.

‘Well, I bet there are as many Abdel Rahmans in Egypt as there are Clarke’s around here. And not all the Clarkes
are catholic.’

‘Mmm. I see your point.’ While this is a revelation, it is Islam that piques my curiosity. I carry the books to my room and begin study. I stare back at a glossy photo of the mask of Tutankhamen. It is hard to connect this image to my science teacher. In fact, the book offers few clues at all. Perhaps I don’t have the right questions to find the answers. But I am tenacious, never surrendering a search for what I seek. I reach for the other volume and fan the pages. Black and white photographs divide the text. One depicts thousands of Muslims on pilgrimage in Mecca. This act of faith is foreign to my experience. I know Catholics have sacred places and I’ve heard of people going to Israel to follow the last days of Christ, but for me the most sacred thing I’ve ever done is witness the aurora.

I turn to the chapter on Islam, scan the first column, and settle to read. I return to the chapter after dinner, certain I’m drawing closer. The middle section describes practices of Islam, how to prepare for worship, what to do and say, transliterated and translated. I wonder if my teacher does this. Then I realise: How can he? Muslims pray five times a day and at least two of those must be during school hours. I read the text again, attempting to pronounce the Arabic words. It’s a struggle till I find the rhythm of it. After re-reading the translation, I sit back
to consider its meaning, how it rests with what I know and believe.

Allah. That’s just God in Arabic. There is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet. That is new, though. No prophets I know of from the Old Testament claim such role in such an emphatic way. Needing time to think this through, I head outside for a bike ride. I look skyward, from where many answers seem to fall, and questions arise. There are contradictions between what I’ve been taught, and my suspicions and
beliefs.

I speak the new words hesitantly, out loud: ‘Allah… God.’

I’ve always thought of God as a painter of the sky, of auroras and sunrises, not some bearded old being. But Allah, Lord of the Universe? The concept defies my imagination. While there are no bolts of lightning thundering in response to these heretical musings, I sense I’m treading on uneasy ground. The remainder of the chapter deals with philosophical details and history. The answers I seek remain veiled, not even the questions clear.

After school I ask dad if he has any other books or information about Islam. ‘No. I don’t think so.’ He pauses. ‘Other than a line or two
in philosophy books. That book I gave you is the best reference by far.’ Dad senses my dejection at this. He wants to help. He understands about seeking truth: the contents of his own library are evidence of his personal journey. We stand side by side, staring at the contents of the shelves.

‘Perhaps you’ll find something in the public library in town,’ he suggests.

‘Yeah. I was just thinking that. I’ll give it a go on Friday after school.’

As I rinse a glass at the sink, dad stands at the back door, deep in thought. ‘There is The Quran of course,’ he remembers.

‘What?’ Such an oversight. I brighten as he lowers his boot. Trembling with excitement, I shepherd him back to the sitting room, and watch as he retrieves a small book.

‘It’s supposed to be as good a translation as any,’ he says, handing it to me.

‘Thanks dad!’

‘I don’t know if it will make any sense to you, though. I read some of it.’ He grins at the memory. ‘Reminds me of the Old Testament. Lots
of begats and hellfire.’

I nod. ‘I’ll let you know.’ There’s a brief introduction, dry stuff, the wherewithal of the translation. I skip to the section about Islam and read hungrily, hoping for details. The translation follows, and I begin with the first surah. It is familiar, something I’ve read in other books, but this is easier to understand. The next surah is entitled ‘The Cow’, and goes on for pages. I’m hoping for a story, but find a jumble of rules about what is expected of a good Muslim, and what happens to the heedless. Unable to determine exact prayer times, I do one in the morning, then at sunset and one before bed. I don’t know what rakkats are, and have to guess at ablutions.

Within a few days I have memorised the first surah and add the invocation that appears at the beginning of each new chapter. With these, I create my devotions, concluding each with a reading from The Koran. From the very first day, I sense a connection with something far bigger than the sky. The name Allah rolls off my tongue easily in the context of prayer, and I repeat it during the day, as Allah’u-Akbar, like I’ve read that Muslims do.
I still attend church with dad. I’m not ready to divulge my secret, though I suspect he knows and understands. In addition to devotions, I begin studying Arabic from a library book. But most of all, I long to meet another Muslim, concluding long ago that my teacher does not share my faith. Recently he participated in an ecumenical Easter service with the whole school. Surely a Muslim would not feel comfortable with something like that? But then, I realise, maybe they do. After all, I had. As for the Egyptian, while I admit I’m infatuated, there are unspoken rules and social etiquette that make this taboo. Yet he dances with me at the school social, and occasionally we exchange a few words after class, though nothing personal. I begin to send him regular cheerio’s on a local radio station, including his name among those of my friends, as an excuse, and requesting songs with cryptic messages on letters are decorated with hundreds of finely penned flowers. I long for the connection but not intimacy; romance perhaps but, since Nick destroyed what lies beyond the fairy tale, I have no inclination accommodate dirty thoughts about someone I care for. Maintaining distance is absolute. Well, almost.

One day, while chatting to my best friend, Elizabeth, on the phone, I confess how I long to talk to him. ‘Not a romantic talk. I know I can’t do that. Just talk, you know. About him, his family, his culture.’ Elizabeth listens patiently. I can only imagine what she’s thinking. ‘I know where he lives, too,’ I remember. ‘The school bus drives passed there every day. I’ve even seen him step out of the gate, striding along High Street in his brown suit, and carrying that leather satchel.’

Elizabeth informs me that his accommodation is a boarding house for single men in town.

‘Why don’t you look up the number,’ she suggests. ‘I know who owns it.’

There’s a long pause.

‘So?’ she persists. ‘Phone him.’

I don’t reply. ‘Look,’ she reasons. ‘He might answer, and then you can talk.’

It sounds a sensible suggestion, but there’s a scary element, and I feel vulnerable.

‘So what happens if he tells me to bugger off?’

‘You don’t have to identify yourself at first. Just start a conversation if he answers. Say you recognise his accent, that you’re a kid from
school. You can have a chat then. You can explain who you are, later. And if it’s someone else, just say sorry, that you’ve got the wrong number.’

‘Mmm.’ It sounds easy enough. My heart thumps fearfully.

‘Will you do it?’ she prompts, knowing I’ll back off if given the chance. ‘It’s something you want to do, so do it while you can, before you think yourself out of it.’ She knows me well. I have the jitters already.

‘Okay,’ I agree. ‘And I’ll call you back when I’ve done it. Tell you what happened.’

‘Good!’ I can tell she’s smiling by the lightness in her voice. ‘And I’ll be waiting near the phone.’

Eventually I make the call. My whole body shakes as I wait while the operator connects me. I hear the phone ring and ring. I’m almost relieved when I realise there’ll be no answer. Five rings, six, seven.

‘Hello?’ It’s him! I know his voice. I freeze. Can’t speak. Haven’t a clue what to say. The few seconds seem minutes. ‘Hello?’ He waits. I can hear him there and I’m trying not to breathe. ‘Is there anyone there?’ he asks. I’m sure he sounds disappointed. I hang up, replacing the earpiece on the hook of wall phone, gasping. I rest my forehead against the wall. I’m all sweaty and shaking. I slide down onto the cool linoleum, trying to get a grip on myself.

Suddenly the phone rings. It’ll be Elizabeth. Thank God! I answer.

‘Hello?’

‘Is this Noorat seven?’ a woman asks. Panic grips me. It’s the operator from the exchange.

‘Um. Yes.’ Guilt grabs my stomach in its vice. ‘Did you just make a call to a Terang number?’

‘Ah, yes…sorry. It was the wrong number. I made a mistake.’

‘Oh,’ says the lady. ‘It’s just that a person at that number is wondering if they have been cut off by accident.’

‘Oh, no.’ I reply. ‘I just panicked when I realised I had the wrong number. Sorry.’

‘So what number did you want?’

Oh, god! ‘Um. That’s just it. I’m not sure. I’ll have to check with my friend again, first.’

‘All right.’ She sounds annoyed. ‘Thank you.’ And hangs up, leaving me feeling so wretched and embarrassed. I return the earpiece to the hook.

‘You idiot!’ I growl. The consequence has dawned on me. Now he can find out it was me. He’s got my number to prove it! I slide back down to the floor, stretching to catch my breath. But what if he knows it was me and wants to talk?

‘Oh, you idiot. You frigging idiot.’ I shake my head, lost at my own stupidity and gutlessness. How will I ever be able to look him in the face
again?
As agreed, I call Elizabeth and explain what happened. She offers bemused counsel that seems sensible and reassuring.

‘Don’t worry about it, Jo. He’s not the type to report you, or anything.’

No. He’ll just think I’m pathetic and an idiot!’

‘I don’t think so. If he recognised you, he may understand how difficult it is. I mean, he must know you like him. It’s painfully obvious to everyone else.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Seriously. He’s a gentleman. I don’t think you’ll get into trouble. And at least you know his phone number.’

‘Yeah.’ I admit that the thought gives me a glow of comfort. ‘And he has mine, too.’

‘So..? Maybe he’ll ring one day.’

‘Dream on. He knows my dragon of a mum, remember?’

‘Mmm. But, at least you did it. That took courage.’

The school year draws to an end too quickly. I know my results won’t be brilliant, but I have accumulated a wealth of experience. I join a couple of friends after choir practice to sing new arrangements of songs. We’re a confident act, improvising and harmonising Simon and Garfunkel songs. As choir members we will perform El Condor Pasa and Scarborough Fair for speech night, the final function of the school
year: my last. I ride into town for extra practice, carting my guitar on the handle bars. Throughout the year, my feelings for the Egyptian have deepened. During the last weeks I go to jewellery store, spending all my savings on a gift for him, and extra change for engraving. I return home to wrap its presentation box as I would a gift of frankincense and myrrh.

The pressure of assessments and final folios is over, and there is an exchange visit by members of a Melbourne high school that provides me with an opportunity to entertain. I perform solos by Dylan, Guthrie and the Bee Gees, using a microphone for the first time. The result is a heart-felt performance and my open-air audience claps and cheers their appreciation. I conclude with an old favourite, Words, secretly dedicated to my beloved teacher. After speeches and farewells, the crowd disperses.

I wait until the Egyptian is alone, walking back toward the staff room. I call to him. He turns, smiling, and waits for me to catch up. I
have a speech prepared but can’t remember a single part of it. I improvise. ‘I want to thank you, wish you well for next year.’
‘Thank you.’ He smiles, searching for something else to say.

I hand him the gift. ‘What is this?’

‘Part of my ‘thank you’,’ I reply, as my heart threatens to burst.

He takes hold of the bow I have tied with such care, and pulls it all undone in one easy twist of his hand. He lifts the lid. ‘Oh,’ and picks up the silver pen, seeing the inscription. Again, he is unsure what to say, much like dad, a man of few words.

Finally, ‘Thank you. Truly.’

‘Will you be back next year?’ I ask, only to prolong the moment.

‘No.’ He smiles shyly. ‘Nor you?’

‘No.’ My brightness drains. ‘No. I’m going to a Melbourne school.’ I shrug ‘You know my mum. It’s pointless to argue.’

He smiles again, indicating the gift in his hand. ‘Thank you for this. Really.’

The moment is over and he must go. I watch him stride along the path, up the stairs and into the building.

It’s a sad ride home that afternoon and my spirits remain dampened over the last few days. The Egyptian has given me so much – he has
no idea what I thank him for. I have surrendered my child’s heart, and feel saturated with emotion. And beyond the summer holidays
boarding school is looming. Mum will suffer no further delay. When my classmates re-convene, I may as well be in a foreign land, coping with all the cultures, crowds, standards and expectations far from home.

(With thanks, still, Elizabeth, for such true and lasting friendship.)

PORT FAIRY

PORT FAIRY

(Extracts from Chapters 18 and 19 of ‘The
Archer’s Game’, sharing the best fish and chips with the best dad, and you.)

An American teacher arrives during my first year of high school. Recruited to meet an urgent
staffing shortage, he joins several new Australian teachers, as recent and exotic additions to our town. But it is not Mr Burton’s nationality that makes him outstanding. Retired from the navy, he
retains a passion for science, particularly astronomy and, while his anecdotes are as instructive as they are entertaining, his application of scientific principles to everyday things is what really intoxicates me. Burton is a bumbling, loud and excitable fellow, prone to distraction. Often his digressions take us far from the curriculum. A fortified breath is part of his jovial nature, and we accept his alcoholism beyond reproach.

The American space program is a regular feature on TV news, and a popular topic at school. Within weeks, we recite names of planets and, by the end of term, can identify many constellations. Burton explains the seasons, tides and lunar cycle, and many astronomical and geophysical phenomena, using clever games, competitions and songs as a way to include slower students in lessons. For me, science homework is pure pleasure, reclining in a deck chair with dad’s astronomy guide, binoclulars, and a torch on my lap, as I observe the tiny satellites around Jupiter. I have learned the names of lunar features on our own moon and I welcome its phases and curious effects on nature and my own being. I now know that auroras occur during fiery solar phases, when waves of plasma charge particles high in the polar regions of our atmosphere. When we discuss new theories about the foundation of our universe, I test these facts, adding them to the matrix of my understanding. New National Geographics supplement a rich diet of microscopic and telescopic detail, offering artistic impressions of ancient species, the formation of volcanoes, mountain ranges, seas and rivers.

Television documentaries and current affairs programs feature scientific developments, and Professor Julius Sumner Miller intrigues me with demonstrations of physics. Burton strays into every subject. He encourages artistry, geological collections, observations and reports, heated discussions about aliens and the ethics of atomic warfare. I am bitterly to learn he is will return next year. Rumours suggest the bottle has the better of him, but his legacy of scientific inquiry leads me to further exploration of dad’s bookshelves, and forays into the school and public libraries provides armloads of material.

One morning, late in autumn, the principal makes an announcement over the PA system, calling me to
his office. There, mum waits. ‘I’ve come to take you home,’ she tells me, her voice croaking with fatigue.

As we walk to the car, she explains: ‘Grandad has died. I think it’s best you come home.’
Her words have failed to sink in. ‘But mum, I sat with grandad this very morning at the breakfast, and he was as chatty and cheerful as usual.’ I disregard mum’s unlikely news, and remind her of the practicalities at hand. ‘What about my bike?’ ‘You can put it in the boot of the car.’

Later in the day, Nick arrives home from school by train, and our aunt and uncle drive down from Melbourne.

Ensuing days engulf us in a solemn bleakness, although its significance seems lost to me. I’ve tried to understand that
grandad has gone forever, and not just till next Christmas.
In an effort to satisfy my doubts, mum tells me how he died. ‘He was tidying his room after breakfast, and fell. We think he must have struck his head on the floor. There was a large bruise on his face. He didn’t wake up again.’

At the funeral, I am that puzzled my parents have arranged for his service to be held in a funeral parlour. I know grandad doesn’t like it here, and it certainly feels wrong to me. There are no stained glass windows for inspiration, and no pipe organ to dignify the coffin. Dad is seated beside me, clearly distressed and my heart aches to see him that way. Yet I know of nothing that will ease his misery. He remains quiet, his jaw tensing and his eyes welling with unspent tears. I am unable to fathom the depth of everyone’s misery. I can’t say goodbye to grandad when he’s still here.

As the funeral procession heads outside, mum stops us getting in the car. ‘A cemetery is no place for children,’ she insists, leaving dad in the consolation of others: his sister and cousins. I hold my tongue, out of respect, but a protest lodges in my throat, and tightens all through the dull afternoon.

In the evening, I sit in grandad’s cane chair on the veranda and weep, not because he has died, for I’m not miserable about that at all. I’m crying because everyone seems so sad, and the day has been so long and bleak. Grandad is here, attached to the other end of the silvery thread that’s fastened to my heart. He disapproves of all the soppiness, and tells me so.

Each day there are little things that speak of him: when I reach for the broom he has used to sweep the verandas; the hand mower that has begun to rust already beneath the tank stand; a morsel of toast on my plate. Each is a sign of his presence and the continuity of his love. I bury my nose in his shaving mug and peer over its rim to where the silky brush stands at attention on the shelf, like a blonde grenadier. Grandad is still here, he is just invisible, that’s all. Only, I’m at a loss to explain his disappearance to those who miss him.

***

Once we settle again and Nick returns to school, I notice an iciness developing between my parents. Coldness is usual, but this chill is new. Dad demonstrates a new steeliness towards mum, and the ensuing clashes produce strident arguments that spill through the house. I find it really upsetting. Once tension was about finances but, it seems, such matters appear to be merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Even though the meal table remains neutral, I sense constant tension and I don’t know how to help. My efforts to placate mum continue, but they work less well because she’s angry with dad, now, not me. And while Nick is away at school there are no fights, but I have relied on him for support when mum gets cranky. Now I feel doubly exposed and I’m afraid. I’ve tried humour but that back fires, and any effort at conversation proves volatile. I cannot explain the dynamics of what is happening, but I can see that my parents are behaving like people who do not like each other. Mum says this will be explained to me when I get older and, for now, there is nothing for me to be concerned about.
‘People can’t get on perfectly all the time, can they?’ She points out.
I am not sure what she means, exactly, perhaps it’s similar to when friends have a disagreement at school and snub each other for several days. Yet, with other’s help these tiffs rarely last. They always make up.

***

With grandad gone and summer holidays approaching, mum and dad decide to take separate breaks. The holiday decision makes sense, giving mum a real break from cooking and cleaning, but it still seems unfair for dad that he must return to the farm every few days to check on the cattle.
‘Can’t the neighbours help out, dad?’ I ask.
‘I’m sure they’d be glad to, but they have enough work of their own without taking on ours.’
Dad leans in the workshop doorway. He looks pale and tired. ‘So Nick and mum will manage the farm for a few days,
while we take a break.’
He says he has agreed to take me with him to Port Fairy, and that we will stay at the Star of the West hotel.
I suspect much of this is mum’s idea.

I recall Port Fairy from brief visits on Sunday drives. It’s about the same size as Terang only built along the river Moyne. This gives the town a more definitive purpose. I remember the cray and abalone fishing boats, moored alongside yachts in the river, and that there is a summer carnival, bringing families to stay in the camping grounds and caravan parks. Dad says the hotel is just a short walk from the shops and to one of several beaches offering a good swell for the surfers. He reminds me of the riverside walks and fishing jetties, and that there are plenty of picnic spots along the coast. Mum says that Port Fairy was one of the earliest settlements in Victoria and was even considered a site for a capital city. The town languishes during winter months, after all the holidaymakers depart. It seems like Terang, a service town, providing supplies for local farmers and the diminutive fishing fleet. The Star of the West is one of two central hotels, mum says. She’s been there for lunch on a craft outing with CWA friends.
‘It’s right on the intersection of the main streets, and only a short walk from the river and beach.’ She makes it sound enticing.

***

Christmas is subdued and soon after, dad and I set off for Port Fairy, arriving at the hotel well before dinnertime. Our adjacent rooms look out across a wide veranda, and we share a bathroom that has a huge bath and heavy basin the size of our laundry sink. The toilet is at the end of a long hallway, of heavy porcelain, with its cistern fitted high on the wall. I’ve never stayed in a hotel before and every detail intrigues and delights me. We stroll along the wharf on the commercial side of the river. The salted air and sourness of low-tide mud remind me of Lake Keilembete near our farm. Alongside the freezing plant there are crayfish boats moored on heavy ropes. Smaller craft line the jetties and fishing platforms. We study skiffs, motorboats and several luxury yachts, one with people aboard. The deck and mast are of oiled wood, with fittings of polished brass, and ropes neatly coiled. The sight makes my toy yacht seem dull and tacky. I admire the slim lines, the ropes, pulleys, portholes and sleek decks, and the way the sea breeze slaps fittings against the mast.

The water fascinates me, too. I like the sound of it lapping on wooden hulls, how it smacks and sucks at their sides, and draws the
vessels against old tyres and fenders. Ripples and wavelets spill over rocks, and on withdrawing reveal scuttling crabs, beached
flotsam, clumps of tangled fishing line, rope and scraps of old cray pots. Stepping down to a jetty, I peer at a mother-of-pearl
sheen on a patch of water. I can smell petrol. Dad says it’s from a fuel pump upstream, where boats refuel. While the water laps, it
gives me no clue of its current or direction. Sea plants drift back and forth, and barnacle-encrusted jetty pylons indicate tidemarks.
Other stains suggest the river rises much higher than now.
Dad answers my umpteenth question: ‘When there’s a king tide or a storm, the river rises over the wharf for a few hours.’
‘What about the houses?’ I study a row of cottages lining the riverbank in both directions.
‘I doubt it would get that high, pretty close, though.’
‘How come there are no houses on the other side of the river?’
‘I think that belongs to the fishing authority. See that dry dock. That’s where they winch the fishing boats up and repair them. There are houses further along. They go right up the hill and overlook the beach.’
‘Nice! That’s the surf beach, isn’t it?’
‘One of them. There are others, several coves safer for swimming.’ He points westward. ‘And there’s another camping ground there, too.’
‘May I go swimming tomorrow?’ I ask hopefully. ‘Yes. That would be nice. Let’s wait and see if it’s warmer, though. This wind has a chill to it and the water looks cold.’

We return to the hotel where dad instructs me to dress in my Sunday best for dinner. I see why when we enter the dining room where starched linen tablecloths and fine settings of silverware give an air of formality, history and sophistication. The waiter shows us to a table, and pulls out my chair, waiting for me to be seated. Next, he unfolds a huge starched napkin and places it upon my lap. Handling me a menu the size of a folio, he and asks, ‘What would the young lady like to drink?’
I’m unsure how to reply and look to dad. He smiles, and orders a glass of cider for me, and a beer for himself.
After the waiter departs, I ask: ‘Why does he make such a fuss? I’m only a kid.’
Dad assures me it’s part of dining room etiquette. He studies the menu, and suggests I try the pea soup. ‘I know it’s not pea soup weather,’ he explains, ‘but your mother recommends it.’
The waiter returns to take our order and dad requests half a serve for me of the soup, with roast
beef to follow, and steamed pudding for dessert. I roll my eyes in delight. The soup arrives in large bowls seated upon even larger
plates. At least I know which cutlery to use and, following dad’s lead, and adjust the serviette on my lap. During the meal,
it keeps slipping to the floor. Finally, dad suggests I fold it in half. There it sits like a picnic blanket. The soup is
everything mum promised, full of creamy peas, shredded ham and rich flavourings from a country garden. After emptying the bowl, I
notice crisp bread rolls. Dad takes one, breaks it apart with his fingers and butters it. I follow his example, scooping a curl of
dewy butter from a silver dish. We don’t talk much as we’re unused to dining together this way. For me such cuisine is a banquet and I struggle to do it justice. I try mustard on my beef, and I chide myself afterwards for having avoided it for so long.

The huge plates are filled with generous portions and I can’t possibly finish my vegetables. Next is dessert: a rich wedge of steamed pudding lies beneath a blanket of glossy custard. I probe for three-penny pieces, as is our family tradition.
Dad chuckles. ‘Don’t think you’ll find any. Might seem like it, but it’s not Christmas pudding.’
I laugh, embarrassed. ‘Well it feels like Christmas.’ I chat brightly now and dad looks so stately in his
Sunday suit, smiling more than I can remember. He orders another pot of beer and says the elegant surroundings remind him of days when he dined well, a rare extravagance now, with his frugal lifestyle.

I struggle to fold my serviette. ‘Don’t worry about that, dear. You don’t clear up, and they’ll give you a clean napkin for breakfast. Just leave it beside your plate. You’re on holidays, enjoy it; no work and lots of fun.’

After dinner, we head upstairs and sit back in wicker chairs upon the broad balcony. Restlessness draws me to the wrought iron balustrade, and I gaze out as dusk settles over the town. Couples stroll, peering in shop windows. A group of hotel patrons burst into the sober evening, and set off jovially. The day is replete and I feel such contentment and pleasure, and tell dad so. He remains silent. The sounds of day hush into evening, surf pounding the beach, just as it will throughout the entire night.

***

I wake to a gentle tap on my door.
‘Yep. I’m awake,’ I call, yawning deeply and stretching beneath the crisp linen. I pad wearily down the hall to the toilet, but scuttle
back to dry my hands when a door opens further along the corridor.

After a breakfast of porridge, eggs and bacon, toast and creamy milk in a very posh glass, dad suggests we go for a walk to
Griffith Island. While I ready myself, he makes a brief phone call to see how things are going on the farm and reports that all is
well.

As we make our way along the riverbank, I think about our destination. ‘What’s at the island, dad?’
He sighs. ‘Lots of things. A lighthouse for one. And mutton birds.’
‘Mutton birds!’ I repeat the phrase, puzzling at it, and then begin to skip as dad lengthens his stride.
I pull at his hand. ‘So, tell me about these mutton birds.’
‘They’re sea birds, and they live in burrows on the island. Most especially, they spend half the year away, and fly as
far as Japan and the Arctic Circle.’
Now, I know from my National Geographics that such a flight covers an enormous distance. ‘You’re kidding. Why would they fly so far?’
‘Don’t know, dear. But scientists have tagged and traced them, so it’s true.’
‘But that’s so far away! Why would they fly so far when there’s plenty here?’
‘I suspect they’ve been doing it for generations. Probably a family tradition. Perhaps they like the weather there, or they’re
Japanese!’
‘Ha-haa!’ And dad lets go a giggle, too.

There are people fishing from one of the jetties as we pass. I pause in wonder. There is so much I don’t know about my dad.
‘Have you ever fished?’ I ask. ‘Oh, once or twice when I was a lad.’
‘Is it fun?’
‘Yes. Yes, indeed.’
I have never been fishing, nor have I seen fishers closely before. I watch the lad cast his line out into the stillness of the river. There is a small white float at the end.
‘What’s that white thing for?’
‘To keep the bait above where the fish feed. Then, when they nibble at it, the float bobs up and down. You watch.’
We wait a few minutes but nothing happens. ‘Catching much?’ dad calls to the father and son.
‘Na, not much. They’ve gone off, I think. Missed the tide,’ the father replies.
‘High tide brings fresh water into the river,’ dad explains, anticipating my question. ‘And that brings food and fish. And when it goes out again, the fish go with it, I suppose.’
Sea flowing into a river. How odd that sounds.

We arrive at the causeway, and pause again. ‘Now,’ dad points. ‘See out there? Across that litter of black rocks where heavy surf churns. That’s the old river mouth. Way too rough for fishing boats, so they dredged out a new river mouth over there.’ He indicates the new river, heading out through a causeway to the sea. ‘And they built this wall to block off the old river mouth.’ I gaze at the boiling ocean.

Beyond the rocks two surfers ride long boards, tucking under the curls, and looping out over the crests just before their wave founders.
‘But, isn’t that a bit dangerous?’
‘Yes. Of course. That’s why they do it. The thrill of danger, the speed of the waves and the danger of the rocks.’
‘Is it hard to learn?’
‘Well, it looks hard enough. Probably like learning to ride a bike. Balance and co-ordination.’
‘Mmm,’ I agree. ‘And knowing how to swim.’ I add, shielding my eyes as I squint at the madmen.
‘Are there sharks?’
‘Oh, yes. Fishermen catch them. And abalone divers have near misses, too, so I’ve read.’
‘What’s abalone?’
‘A shellfish that clamps onto rocks. When you remove the fish, the shell makes a beautiful mother of pearl dish. We might see some out here on the beaches. I’ll point one out if we do.’
‘Is it nice to eat?’
He smiles. ‘I think it is an acquired taste, a bit like brains,’ and grins. ‘But the Japanese love it. That’s where most of it is sold.’

Beneath us the ocean surges through the stones of the causeway, making a glooping sound like water emptying from a bottle. On the seaward side, river water streams down a brief lick of sand and into the ocean, where mounds of half-rotted kelp lie strewn by heaving seas. Then I notice the kelp at my feet.
‘How’d that seaweed get up here?’
‘Waves often wash over the causeway. See?’ He points to the far river bank. ‘There’s kelp on that walkway, too, see? A good reason never to turn your back on the sea. Freak waves can catch you unawares. Down Port Campbell way, and further up the coast, towards Portland, people have been washed off the rocks that way.’
I decide that the surfers are quite mad. Yet I feel pangs of envy, too: that they are game to face such danger in order to enjoy the thrill of their sport. We leave the path and step out over a swathe of black boulders littering this side of the island.

Eventually we reach the dunes, and follow a tired trail through wind-blown tussocks and pig-face. The sea breeze has freshened and I’m glad of my coat. We approach a small hollow in the ground. ‘Rabbits!’ I declare.
‘More likely mutton birds.’
‘Really!’ I had expected their nests to be higher, on hillsides or cliff-faces, not scattered in this pathetic excuse for a dune. The
whole island seems little more than rocks and dunes at best. ‘But they’re not even lined,’ I insist.
‘They don’t need to be, dear. They just dig the burrows and lay their eggs, usually only one. Look.’ He indicates bones with the toe of his shoe. ‘A mutton-bird chick. Foxes and stray dogs take them.’

I walk on glumly. We continue round the seaward side of the island, stepping carefully along an ill-defined track through a maze of burrows. Some are quite exposed, others tucked under tussocks and shiny leaf bushes. Ahead, a small cove provides some shelter and reprieve from the basalt-strewn shore. I spy rock pools and scurry over to them, discovering colourful shells fastened to the stone, and small crabs and starfish; even an occasional minnow. Fish fascinate me and I dart from pool to pool, leaving dad seated on kelp littered sand, where he gazes seaward. Behind us lies a small crater, a lava vent; its black, basalt sides falling, perpendicular, into the green-tinted pool. The water looks very deep and the basalt appears unweathered, rising hard and high, like a fortress. The pool tantalises, so close but inaccessible.

Dad prises himself up stiffly and brushes sand from his trousers.
‘Where does all this black rock come from, dad?’
‘It was once a lava flow from a volcano.’
‘But there’s no volcanic cone.’
‘Oh…’ He thinks for a moment. ‘There’s another one, further round the island. I think they’re part of the Tower Hill’s eruptions. Remember we passed Tower Hill on the way here?’
‘Yes! So, lava spilled out into the sea?’
‘Well, Yes, but I can’t say where the shoreline was ten thousand years ago.’
‘True.’ But it was more than true. It was stunning to consider this coastline was so recent. I follow dad through another range of mutton-bird burrows, stepping over carnage a half dozen times.
‘Where are the birds, dad?’
‘Out fishing, probably around Lady Julia Percy Island.’
‘Where’s that?’
He points behind us, over the surf. ‘You can’t see it from here, not today. There’s too much haze.’
‘When do they come back?’
‘In the evening, at sunset.’
‘Can we come back and watch them?’
‘Yes. All right. I’ll get fresh batteries for the torch, too.’

After clambering over another field of basalt, we approach a lighthouse, visible above a grove of shiny leaf and tea tree. We pass ruins of the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, now a circle of rubble, with a broken sandstone chimney. Geraniums have continued European habitation. We step onto a short causeway and approach the lighthouse, a brilliant white tower with the most dramatic of ocean backdrops. Beyond it, the sea seems to pile up over reefs, rising higher, seemingly well over our heads, and breaks on the basalt foundations in a storm of white foam and spray, and with a reverberation that shakes the ground.

The door of the lighthouse is locked and there is little do but climb over rocks and watch the ocean.
‘No surfers here, dad,’ I call over the din.
‘Now that would be madness!’ He sits down on the sea wall.
I realise I’m plaguing him with questions. ‘I’ll explore a bit, if that’s okay?’
He nods and I head for the cottage ruins, and begin raking the sand. How anyone could walk passed ruins like this and not scrounge for evidence of its history; there has to be some clue as to how the occupants lived? I find numerous shards of weathered blue glass, and unearth some pieces of dinner plates, cups and saucers. Seated on my haunches, I try to imagine who might have visited here for afternoon tea a hundred years earlier, and who was here to receive them? What was it like to live here all year round, climbing the lighthouse stairs to maintain the lamp through the violent winter gales and storms that rack this coast? What a miserable place for a family to live, but how delightful the summers, with fresh fish and a beach on the doorstep.

Dad appears beside me. I can tell I have been gone awhile for my skin is smarting from the sun. Our island curves back across a shallow bay to a causeway by the new river mouth. As we cross the beach, archaeological trinkets jangle in my coat pocket. Here the shore is sheltered by dunes that tower over us like surf. Stepping onto the causeway, we head out to the point, where small light is affixed to a pylon, signalling the entrance. We are exposed to the full blast of the wind, and the ocean rises against the causeway wall, the roll of water sucking the stones like the bow of a ship.

All the way back along the causeway, we see evidence of human carelessness: tangled, discarded fishing line, hooks, cigarette
butts, discarded bait shells and strands of fish guts, gull-picked and festooned with glossy flies. Dad explains how the causeway lies across ocean currents, making the river mouth silt up. He reckons the dredging barge we pass is fighting a losing battle. It
certainly looks like a battler, rusted, listing, and moored by heavy, weathered ropes. It had been operating this morning, and has
deposited a foul-smelling slurry of sand and mud into a tidal lake on the island.

We pass the second lava vent, more accessible than the first, but it’s lunchtime and dad says we must be getting back.

At the wharf, we pass a noisy warehouse cool room. A fishing boat unloads its crates of crayfish.
‘What’s crayfish like, dad?’ He thinks for a bit. ‘Might be best if you try. It’s a bit hard to describe. It might be on the menu for dinner. Now, what do you want for lunch?’
‘What is there?’
He indicates a doorway leading into a fish shop beside the warehouse. ‘Let’s get something here and eat it at one of those benches along the river. What do you think?’
‘No need to ask. You know I love fish and chips.’
Dad orders flake, chips and a couple of scallops. ‘And two potato cakes,’ he adds, smiling down at me. ‘I’m feeling pretty peckish. It’s almost two o’clock, you know. While we’re waiting, let’s go over to the public toilets and wash our hands.’

On our return, the meal is ready. While dad pays, I reach for the roll of hot newspaper, with my nose already hovering at the end. ‘Mmm. Quick! Not sure I can wait!’

We stop at The Point, where the new and old rivers meet, and arrange our lunch on a picnic bench facing the water, with Norfolk Island pines towering at our backs. Dad unwraps the parcel, spreading it out between us. Inside the greaseproof paper lie exquisite morsels: the chips are large and crisp, their tips golden brown and sandy with salt. I burrow in and find the scallops, peeling them away gently. Dad squeezes lemon on a piece of battered fish.
‘Mmm,’ he sighs, chewing impatiently, managing few words around the hot food. ‘Nothing better than fresh fish. This flake melts in your mouth. How’s yours?’
My hands are too small to manage an entire slab. After seasoning with lemon, I break the fillet into pieces. ‘What does a flake look like? I checked that chart on the shop wall; there was whiting, hake, flathead and flounder, but no flake.’
‘It’s shark.’
I frown. ‘What?’
His words were muffled over a mouthful of chips. ‘Yes,’ he nods. ‘Flake is another name for shark.’
I lick my lemony fingers. ‘You mean shark, as in the big fish with all the teeth and the fin and everything?’
‘Fishermen catch them while they’re waiting for their craypots.’
I regard my meal with new respect, and lift a portion of the fish to my mouth, biting into it with mock savagery and accompanying snarls.
Dad laughs. ‘It’s delicious, isn’t it?’
My legs swing beneath the bench, and I glow with contentment.
Dad unearths another wedge of lemon and we eat quietly, watching a flock of seagulls gather, bickering and pacing at our feet. Eventually we toss them our scraps and watch them squabble. ‘No table manners at all,’ I declare.

We amble back along the river to the hotel. At the corner of the main street, dad calls me into an electrical store for batteries, and then to the newsagents for a paper. He offers to buy me a comic, an adaptation of The Black Tulip, that I’m perusing.
He’s well aware how mum disapproves of them. She tells me comics are rubbish, just like cartoons. As an afterthought, dad buys two choc wedges, and we sit on a bench in the street, eating them. Dad bites pieces off his ice-cream while I peel off shards of chocolate coating from mine, before starting on the creamy vanilla heart.
‘Well,’ says dad, as we climb the stairs to our rooms. ‘You’d better have a rest, and a wash, I think.’
I look at him in disbelief.
He laughs, pointing at the front of my coat. I peer down. Melted chocolate has lodged on a buttonhole.
‘And there’s more round your mouth. Go and have a wash. And it’ll be a late night if we’re going to see the mutton birds, so have a snooze.’
‘But I’m not tired, dad.’
‘Don’t worry. Just lie on your bed and read. I’ll tap on the door for dinner. We have to be on the island before sunset.’

***

(BRAIM HOUSE
Courtesy of: http://vhd.heritage.vic.gov.au/search/nattrust_result_detail/69377)

WAVES

It’s surprising how easily sleep drifts in with only a few pages read. I wake with a start, wondering for a few moments where I am. The sound of the ocean reassures me and I doze again, waking to dad’s gentle tap on the door. ‘Come on, sleepy,’ he calls.
After another quick wash, I dress for dinner and meet him at his door. ‘Ready.’
On his bed he has laid out things we’ll need for our expedition.

There is no crayfish on the menu, so we order roast chicken, with fruit and custard for dessert. Dad finds the wishbone and says he’ll save it so we can break it later, for good luck.

We change into warmer clothes. I wear my school shoes and the woollen coat I wear to the footy. Dad drives us to the causeway and leads the way across to the island, stepping carefully where burrows have undermined the path. Shafts of sunlight leave the basalt all bloody and gild the lips of each wave, turning the foam a deep pink.
‘Look, Jo!’ Dad points across the swell. ‘See that long flat shape in the middle of the water?’
I scramble up beside him and follow his arm, nodding when I spot it.
‘That’s Lady Julia Percy Island, where the mutton birds go each day.’
The island reminds me of a long barge, sitting low in the water. Its cliffs seem vertical and, at this distance, any details are lost in a haze of spray.
‘Come along,’ dad urges. ‘Let’s find some shelter before dark.’

We cross a maze of tracks, reaching a low clump of shiny leaf.
‘Here’s a good spot. The birds won’t see us and it’s sheltered from the wind.’
I settle down to wait, unsure of what to expect.
Dad shines his torch about. There are burrows right up to our feet.
‘Some might not be in use,’ he says.

The last surfers step carefully over the field of boulders leading up to their vehicles, parked on the look out. They look like seals in
their wet suits; with odd-shaped fins where they hang undone. With sunset comes an anticipated lull in the wind and the stench of kelp rises, with tangy iodine wafting from warm rocks. The sea dominates the horizon, generating sets of waves that tower above us, tumbling into the reef with a deafening roar we can feel through our feet. Seagulls scatter.

I peer at island. A grunt and nudge from dad confirms something is happening. There’s a vague smudge growing darker and closer, vibrating and sketchy. I distinguish the movement of wings and soon a distinct cry. We sit transfixed, stiffening in the cold, as the first birds wheel overhead, scooping low over our hide before sweeping back out to sea. As more arrive, the sky fills with swooping wings and cries, flying so close I can hear the air over their feathers.
‘How come they don’t collide?’ I call over the din.
Dad eyes never leave the sky. ‘Perhaps some do.’
There’s a sound behind us, a rustle and flapping of wings. We turn slowly. Only yards away a bird lands, inspects her nest and regards us with suspicion. Never the less she enters her burrow. There is more commotion as other birds alight nearby. All around the air fills with fluttering, scolding mutton-bird cries. Impossibly, more birds arrive, gliding in on thermal currents, each bird circling
several times before landing.
‘What are they doing in the burrows, dad?’
‘Disgorging fish for their chicks. That’s why they fish all day, stocking the larder for the kids.’
I sit back, huddled against the freshening breeze, in my coat, awed by the extraordinary sight. The sea has becomes
phosphorescent, its white foam bright as starlight. The breeze warms, rises, returning the day’s heat to Bass Strait.

After almost an hour, we ease ourselves up and seek a path amongst the burrows. The tussocks are alive with imperative cries from hungry chicks and snarling neighbours. And birds still arrive from the voluminous night. They’re sleek birds, dark-feathered from what I can see, with faces like penguins. Upon reaching the causeway, we pause to look back, seeking a context to the spectacle. The ocean thunders. No wonder it’s so clear from my room. The tide has risen, too, and waves envelop the base of the causeway, retreating again before another onslaught.
‘Come on, dear,’ dad calls. ‘It’s late.’

***

‘Any plans for today?’ I ask dad, as we head downstairs for breakfast.
‘Well, we haven’t explored the dunes or the east beach yet. Let’s head over the footbridge and take a look.’

There’s quite a sting to the sun, welcome after the gloomy, wet Christmas. As we cross the footbridge, I peer over the railing, immediately spotting a school of silvery minnows near a pylon. We walk further on, following a dead-end road passed several houses and the dry dock. A fishing boat is propped on scaffolding, its hull daubed with undercoat. There is no-one about and we take a closer look. I’m amazed at the size of the boat seems, the breadth of its hull and the weight of it.
‘It looks so clumsy out of the water, doesn’t it, dad?’
He agrees, and walks round the craft, inspecting it himself.

We continue further along the river bank until a cyclone fence forces us to change direction. Soon the asphalt is swamped in sand,
becoming a dirt track, and scrub closes in overhead. We arrive at the beach quite unexpectedly and, with a shriek of delight, I slip
off my shoes and socks, and bound to the water’s edge. As I wade into the shallows, wavelets break over my feet, speckling them in foam. It is warmer than I expected. Farther down the beach, the swell picks up, driving clean waves across the curve of the bay. There are groups of people sun baking, swimming and playing cricket on the sand, while surfers follow the swell into shore.
‘I want to try that!’
Dad approaches the water’s edge, and stands beside my shoes. ‘Do what?’
‘Surf. Like that.’ I step forward, keen to see them better.
‘Don’t go out too far. Those waves can be tricky. There may be an undertow.’
I turn back, with water churning around my legs, beckoning me to play. ‘See those people surfing?’
He nods, looking across at them.
‘Well, may I try that?’
He looks uncomfortable. ‘I know you swim in the pool, Jo, but surfing is another thing entirely.’ He squints under the blade of his hand. ‘You’ll have to stay between the red flags, where the life-savers are on watch.’
It looks crowded there, but I decide it is better than nothing. ‘Okay. Will you swim with me?’
‘Perhaps for a little while. It’s still quite cold, though. How about this afternoon?’
‘Okay. Let’s walk over and watch the kids.’

A single dune rises as we follow the beach, forming a cliff above the swimmers. Several ramps traverse the slope and at the base of the second, is a sign. “Body Boards 20 cents per hour.” Beside it lies the most tanned European man I’ve ever seen, lying on a banana lounge, dressed in black Speedos, with sunglasses and a white daub of zinc cream across his nose.
‘That bloke’s been coming here for years,’ says dad. ‘He lies there all day hiring boards. All summer long.’
‘Does he surf?’
‘The only time I’ve seen him get up is to tell kids their hour’s finished.’
We continue our walk, stepping round discarded towels and sandals, avoiding the cricket match and beach umbrellas lurching in the
wind. The atmosphere reminds me of city beaches: Black Rock and St. Kilda, in the thick of summer, and the most hectic days at the Terang pool. Across the broad expanse of sand, whole dynasties crowd beneath awnings flapping vigorously in the wind. I have never expected to see so many people in such holiday spirit. They’re not just from our district, either. I catch foreign phrases and accents in the babble. Beyond the flags, blokes sit back in fold-up canvas chairs, with eskies between them, and bottles of beer half buried in damp sand. Local farmers and tradesmen, their ears glued to a cricket broadcast squawking over the crowd from a scattering of transistor radios.

Along the shoreline, mums and kids guide toddlers on their first steps into the sea. Further along are beachcombers, studying the high tide line intently, their faces bowed in search of shells and driftwood. Exuberant kids bolt passed us to the water’s edge, diving into a wave, and swimming furiously out to the surf. I want a holiday like this, with long days of games and swimming. I study body surfers paddling out through the waves on inflatable mats, their eyes on the swell. As the waves form, they
kick into a trough, grip their boards and slice into the face of the expanding water, just like the surfers we watched yesterday.

Dad interrupts my reverie. ‘Time for lunch?’
We climb the ramp, passed the surf club, and into the car park. From here I see how the coast stretches east, curving passed Tower Hill towards Warrnambool. ‘Is there beach all the way to Warrnambool, dad?’
‘Looks like it, doesn’t it.’ He shields his eyes. ‘There’s a rocky outcrop at Killarney, near Tower Hill, but I think its beach all
the way to the Merri River and that’s in Warrnambool.’

There’s an ache in me for this place, a feeling like home, a calling.

We head down the hill back into town, and cross the river via the traffic bridge. The water is reedy here, silted and smells sour. The river seems to just wander off, losing its way in marshes.

For lunch dad suggests sandwiches. ‘Then we won’t have to wait so long before swimming.’
Which is all I can think about. ‘I hope you’ve got your bathers, dad!’

After a brief rest upstairs, I slip into mine, and pull a summer dress over them. I meet dad out in the hall at two o’clock, as agreed. He carries keys. ‘We’ll drive down.’ He glances at my bundle of beach things. ‘Did you remember underwear?’
‘Why?’
‘There are showers at the car park. You can rinse there. Keep sand out of the car. You’ll need your toilet bag, too.’
I grab the extra gear and wrap them in my towel. Then I realise I have no money. ‘You wouldn’t have twenty cents for a body board would you?’
He rattles change in his pocket. ‘No problem.’

I discard my dress at the car, self-consciously wrapping my towel around like a sarong, before following dad down the ramp. He’s wearing Speedos and has a towel slung over his shoulder. His legs are like two snow gums, lanky and pale; like grandad, he doesn’t wear shorts much.

We’ve gone down the wrong ramp for the surf mat guy, and make our way through swarms of families to his stall. Dad asks him for a board.
‘For yourself, is it?’ the bloke asks. I realise he has two sizes.
‘No,’ saya dad. ‘For my daughter here.’
The man addresses me, now. ‘Ever used one before, love?’ His skin is as tanned as mum’s best gloves, and I can smell
suntan lotion.
‘No.’ I panic. Maybe I have to take lessons.
‘How about a smaller one to start out on then, eh? These biggies are a bit long for you to manage first up.’ He reaches for a
disappointingly small mat. But he’s right, after all. ‘And it’ll cost you only half as much!’
I look to dad. He nods for me to take it.
‘Once you get used to the waves, you’ll manage a bigger ones, love.’ The bloke pokes his zinc-clad nose at the surfers. I smile a
reply, unused to the familiar way he speaks. ‘Stay between the flags, now,’ he calls after me.
I nod, and scurry after dad to the shore.

‘Here.’ Dad reaches for my bundle of clothes. ‘I’ll take your things. I’ll have a quick dip in the shallows. Water’s too cold for me.’
I hesitate.
‘You go on, though, dear. I’ll keep an eye on you from here.’

My inflated, orange and blue striped mat has two handles and is heavier than I expect, but it floats well. I wade in, striding out to deeper water, and paddle through the first set of waves. I get a face full of water and rise, spluttering and scrubbing my eyes. I must watch for jellyfish and lurking shadows. Sliding onto the mat the way I’ve seen the boys do, I find it easier to direct, paddling over the next set and out further. Beyond me a row of bronzed surfers sit astride their boards.

The next set is bigger. I paddle over the first crest as most of the surfers disappear. I watch their heads and arms vanish beyond the wave. Beyond them I search for dad on the beach. He’s leaning back on his towel, watching. The water rises again, and I kick forward, catching the fat lip of a wave, but miss it. With the next, I lean forward on the mat and the curl catches me. I slip down face of the water too fast, and plough into the churning soup of sand and foam. Nothing has prepared me for this. I surface, gasping and shocked, one hand still gripping my mat. As I peel my wet hair off my face, I wave at dad, grinning, to let him know I’m okay.

Turning seaward again, I wade through foam ahead of the next line of breakers. Reviewing what I’ve learned, I let the first wave go and watch how the second one builds. It begins to break, lifting me across its shoulder. I let it pass. The next wave is mine and it’s sensational. I tip into the curl perfectly, and direct my mat down the broad face of water. Exhilarated by the speed, I follow the
wave right in to shore, well east of the flags. Getting up I wave triumphantly to dad.

As I paddle back out, I practice maneuvering, crossing the face of two breakers, diving beneath them as they roll over me. Dad signals for me to come in, tapping his watch. After the next wave, I head inshore, dragging the mat reluctantly behind me. He reads my disappointment. ‘How about another hour?’
‘Yes please,’ I gush guiltily. ‘That last one didn’t seem like an hour, more like fifteen minutes. Are you sure you don’t mind sitting
here, though?’ I feel guilty at his waiting for me.
‘Not at all. You can manage well enough so I’ll have a snooze. I’ll let you know when the hour’s up, okay?’
‘Thanks so much, dad.’ He hands me a coin and I turn, navigating back through the throng, to pay the board guy.
‘No worries, love,’ he smiles. ‘You’re doing well.’
Delighted, I race back to the water and throw myself down on the mat, heading out passed the breakers.

***

That evening there are three pink, smarting triangles across my back.
‘We forgot the sun-cream, didn’t we,’ dad apologises. ‘Got any cream with you?’
‘I’m only twelve, dad. I don’t use makeup.’
‘Well, you’ll need something on that.’ He checks his watch. ‘The milk bar should still be open. I’ll go now. They’ll have something.’ He returns with a pink jar and offers to apply it. ‘Here, the shopkeeper says it’s good, that it won’t stop the sting, but will put some moisture back into it and stop it peeling.’
I’m curious. ‘Dad, how come that man hiring the boards isn’t burned, just really tanned instead?’
‘Years of exposure, I s’pose. Every summer for years.’ ‘Here.’ He hands me the jar. ‘You can do the rest.’
I laugh. ‘Tough job being a parent, isn’t it.?’
‘Oh, it’s not so bad.’ He wipes his hands on his handkerchief. ‘I think we’re managing fine, don’t you?’
‘We’re having a wonderful holiday, dad. But I am wondering if you’d like a bit of time on your own, that’s all. Do we have to go home tomorrow? It’s so soon.’
He sighs. ‘That’s the deal. But we can do it again, can’t we?’
I begin to apply cream to my legs. ‘Maybe for a week next time?’
‘Perhaps. Let’s see how the others manage, first.’

Following breakfast we pack and tidy. Then, after a brief stroll by the river, we set off home, early enough so that mum and
Nick have time to drive back here and take over our rooms. Dad takes us via the south beach. We pass new houses and a camping
ground, before returning to the highway.

We arrive home for a late lunch. Nick’s been waiting at the milk stand by the road, and races his bike ahead of us. I feel an odd sense of guilt, coming back here. The farm seems different somehow, a bit distant, really dry and ragged. As we unpack the car, mum and Nick pack their gear in, and depart soon after.

Next evening mum phones from Port Fairy. She says the weather has been cooler, no good for the beach; and that they’ve been exploring old houses and public buildings. ‘We’ve discovered a rather glum looking two-storey house, huddled at the front of a street next door to a church. And it’s for sale,’ mum adds. ‘Its roof is rusty, the window-frames weathered and the gutterings leak down the walls.’ She says she’s arranged an inspection with the agent. Then she asks to speak to dad. I can tell she’s describing the house, and watch as he becomes really agitated.
‘It’s dilapidated,’ he tells me afterwards. ‘All the rooms need urgent attention. Who knows what the stairs are like, and the bathroom’s just a lean to. There’s no sewerage connected. Your mother reckons the place has potential,’ he snorts, shoving
his plate onto the sink. He adds water to the teapot. ‘The last house she bought was the same. And guess who did most of the
fixing? And, when she sold it, I didn’t see a single pound!’ He sighs. ‘But at least it was in Terang, not an hour and a half by
car like this one.’ Dad heads outside to move the hoses in the vegetable garden. When he returns, he is much calmer.

In mum’s absence I manage the house, cooking meals for both of us. And it’s not as easy as it looks, either. I’ve prepared meals before, but haven’t had to plan for them. The hardest part is getting all the food cooked and ready at the same time. That really takes planning and some of my efforts are disappointing. But it’s amazing how a dollop of chutney can transform a chop, and fresh pepper and butter restore over-cooked beans. However, there is little I can do to save the over-salted potatoes. I decide to abandon mum’s style of cooking all together, and follow my own instincts. Curry is my first success, and I cook the porridge with milk for creaminess and sweetness, but egg yolks continue to break unfailingly whenever I cook them. Desserts are easy as our tastes are simple. And with the orchard at our doorstep, we finish meals with slices of apple and cheese, mulberries and cream, or fresh-picked apricots broken in halves, juicy and warm from the sun.

Cleaning is tedious and I loathe the ironing, one chore mum often leaves for me. Dad says he doesn’t mind his shirts unironed, but some things must be done. Using a table makes the job more difficult, and the space has invited clutter. Mum’s pottery tools are encroaching and she’ll need space for her wheel soon. Now it’s cluttering up the veranda. After the frustration of ironing, I give the laundry a thorough clean, and discover the source of a lingering stink: emptying the offending bucket of starch down the drain. Vacuuming is easy. I don’t see what all the fuss is about, and by sweeping the floor each day, there’s less work in the long run. With my chores done, and a fresh game of archery completed, I offer dad some help. He sets me the delicious task of picking beans and peas.

Since our trip to Port Fairy, dad is chattier and shares his evenings with me. At the end of each day he plays records, with the
turned volume up much louder than mum would tolerate. He explains to me, ‘You must have the music playing as loud as a real orchestra in the room.’
And that seems perfectly sensible to me, letting the sounds soaks in, so they make me shiver.
On our last day dad calls me in after lunch for Bach’s Fugue, and laughs when I call it Christmas music. As always, I lie on the floor with my eyes closed, and imagine grand cathedrals and mosques, with intricately carved vaults; the tinkling geometry of ice crystals and the feel of colours.
‘It’s still magic, dad!’ I declare at the end.

*****
I ride into town to meet Elizabeth at the pool. She is with her family and we lie on the lawn after swimming, demolishing icy-poles. By late
afternoon the throngs have departed, leaving a lane in which I swim laps. While swimming is satisfying, it’s not fun like body surfing. Before the kiosk closes, I buy a liquorice bar, and arrive home with a blackened tongue and wicked, aniseed breath. Awaiting mum and Nick’s return curtails my freedom. I fill the time by busying myself with cleaning and tidying. By lunchtime the house is considerably more orderly than mum left it. Satisfied, I take a long ride, resolving to return only after the holidaymakers are back. On the third lap of the road I dawdle. The driveway remains empty. I take a quick drink at the tank and head down the lane. It is almost three thirty, and the sun has reduced the surface to a shimmering strip of gravel, and the shoulders are creased by dead grass and weeds. How parched it seems after the glistening ocean and grassy dunes of Port Fairy. I can think of a dozen places for adventure there, and would welcome an ocean’s lullaby. I fail to
notice our cream Ford Falcon turn in the driveway.
All we hear about for the next week is what a good investment mum’s house will be. She says the owner is keen to sell and that she has enough shares pay for it, only needing dad’s support. But he is wary of her proposal, and new arguments sour the holidays.

‘You could at least take a look at it, Merlin,’ she snaps defensively.

‘I’m no builder,’ he replies sharply. ‘And you’ll need a housing inspector through it before you go buying a wreck like that. Not to mention a
good builder to do all the work.’

‘It’s not a wreck, Merlin! You haven’t even seen it, so how do you know?’

‘You described it as a wreck yourself on the phone.’ He pulls at his boot. ‘The place obviously needs work if the walls are still wet and the plumbing’s so basic. Good lord, Lola, I’ve got a farm to manage. I can’t go traipsing to Port Fairy to do renovations.’

‘I’m not asking you to stay down there for days, and I’ll get tradesmen for the big jobs. Surely you can clean up the back yard, though. You said how much you enjoyed staying at the hotel there. Well, imagine having our own holiday house to stay in. It’d soon pay for itself.’

Dad simmers at the back door. He knows mum’s determined to get her own way. To disagree will be worse than renovating, in the long run.
After another week of bickering he weakens. ‘I agree that a holiday house is a good idea, Lola, but why does it have to be a run-down two
storey nightmare? What about one of those fibro cottages in Peterborough? Or somewhere nearer, so I can check the stock each day or so? Why do you need a two-storey place anyway?’

‘Because it’s only two thousand pounds, that’s why,’ she grates. ‘It’s an investment.’ She senses victory. ‘We will rent out one floor and use the other. We could even let that part out for much of the year. There are always plenty of holiday makers looking for rentals.’

Dad says nothing more for a bit.

I hate hearing them argue and head outside to my camp on the veranda. Their voices resume, pitched at each. Any minute mum will end up in tears, and dad won’t talk for days on end, and I want to be anywhere else but here.There’s a brief lull.

Mum begins again. ‘It’s not every day you get such a property for that price is it? How can we lose on such an investment?’

Still nothing from dad. They’re on the move through the house, mum’s heels on lino, then up the hall; the rattle of cups and saucers as she prepares afternoon tea. Nick and I know we must tread carefully until this is over.

There’s still tension at the dinner table. I listen in silence and flee once the dishes are done, riding up and down the driveway, and drinking
in the silence and simplicity of sunset. On Wednesday the matter is resolved. Dad agrees to inspect the house next Saturday, and mum
organises an appointment with the estate agent. The tension eases; a relief to us all, and teaches me how holidays have massive consequences. Against dad’s judgement, mum buys the house. Now we must all agree to put in our best effort towards its restoration. In return, mum foots the bill for materials and tradesmen. It costs almost as much again for the refurbishment, and the workmen are slow. They have little experience with heritage constraints on historical buildings.

Mum’s discovery of the house’s history is a two-edged sword. An early educator, Dr. Braim built the school for children of landowners. It was the first boarding school in Victoria. Mum christens the building Braim House in his honour. For several weekends we work from dawn to dusk, clearing the back yard, and carting loads of vegetation and discarded building materials to the rubbish tip. We join mum in the laborious task of scrubbing, scraping, repairing and painting the walls, and dad is conscripted for basic plumbing and carpentry. Tradesmen repair the roof, build a new bathroom, install a toilet, and virtually rewire all the circuits. With the onset of winter, new leaks and rising damp appear.

While Nick is away at school, tradesmen muddle on, and I spend dank months helping mum with detailing, sewing taffeta curtains, blind fixtures and furnishings. The project is a huge test of family commitment, and it is wearing us down. While the walls are eighteen inches thick, winter gales find their way under doors and up chimneys. The first floor is warmest, and offers a view across the town. Arctic gales bluster and howl, and the ashen sky makes reminds me how dismal much of the year can be. Each night the ocean pounds the coast, soothing me to sleep. By the following summer Braim house welcomes its first tenants. It is a cool haven from the searing heat, and an easy bike-ride or walk to the river and beaches.
For Christmas, we receive fishing rods and tackle from Santa, and a tackle box and bag from Husso. Pirate, our cat, provides the reels. Dad takes us on our first fishing trip on Boxing Day. We try The Point, and he asks the advice of a neighbouring fisher who invites us over for a tutorial. The result is a fine catch of mullet. Traveling back and forth, we manage the farm and holidays. Nick has schoolmates to visit and the summer drifts, luxuriously long. Dad buys a second-hand boat and trailer and takes us out along the Moyne and into the bay for fishing. But as farm work increases, the boat languishes in the shed. In the new year mum finds tenants for the downstairs flat, freeing up time and
money for her pottery. And from Easter until the following summer, the top floor is rented, too. My holidays and weekends return to a
happy farm routine. I’m glad to see the last of the sandpaper, brushes, paint and blisters. Now there are more pressing matters to consider…