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.

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