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.

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