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.’


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.
‘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.