Category: The Archer’s Game


THE ARCHER’S GAME

Archer's Fields

The following chapter provides a gateway leading me to the very heart of my home,  and reveals its past: the truths that changed my perception of who I was and where I belonged.

The Archer’s Game

As sunrises on Sunday, I perch on the wide gate, gazing at the horizon all misty and lavender. Amber rays filter through branches of aged pines, gilding my face and hair. The trees stand in an L-shaped at the corner of the next field: we call it the Rabbit Paddock. Beneath the pines ragged clumps of boxthorn form a hedge accommodating several rabbit warrens. I can see two occupants bobbing in the grass, their white tails flagging every hop, and I can hear Husso’s tail drumming the kennel floor, as if he knows.

While not keen to hunt creatures for sport, even culling, rabbits lie within a grey area of my conscience, with mice, foxes and starlings: creatures dad refers to as pests. True, I help dig up their burrows and enjoy eating rabbit casserole, but taking life for food is beyond my childhood experience. I have never known such hunger as to kill, let alone butcher a wild rabbit.

Clasping my bow and an arrow, I regard the rabbits, now. Shall I hunt them or not? I haven’t imagined beyond this moment. Having held the cypress branch aloft, I could see the bow it would make, just as surely as how I knew how to craft it. Instincts guided me, not books. My hands knew what to do, which tool to use, what notches to cut, how to judge the rightness of balance and spring. The knowledge manifested itself as I needed it.

But here, with an hour before breakfast, I am unsure what to do. My instinct fails me. There is emptiness where there should be an impulse. Picking up the threads of yesterday, I slide off the gate and step forward, fitting an arrow to the bow. I draw it back. Nothing special presents as a target. I fire at the pine tree, striking it easily, and collect the arrow.

Consciously inviting a new challenge, I turn south to the open field, raise the bow, fit the arrow, and sight distant features along the shaft. Terang drapes the hill, all misty. Pines and cypresses are next; they and the boundary fence are too distant and featureless. I turn eastward, sighting boxthorn. The rabbits have gone. The hedge beckons. I aim above it, emptying my mind, pausing, and fire. The arrow sails high and falls into grass. This feels right.

I spot the shaft, buried tip-first in a clump of weed. The smells of damp earth and vegetation rise. Life is palpable, inviting me forward. Aiming for the hedge, I spot a scar on the trunk of the first pine tree. I pause, breathe, draw and fire, knowing I won’t reach the target in one go. The arrow sails over the fence, landing well short of the tree. I slip between the wires and retrieve the shaft, wiping the earth from its tip. It has flown to the right, so I aim the next shot to allow for this, above the scar on the trunk. Clipping the bark, the shaft sails passed.
Damn! I retrieve it. One easy shot will strike the trunk anywhere, but I want the target, now on the other side: the penalty for inaccuracy. With one more shot to place myself in line with the target, the final one lands in the centre of the scar.
‘Bullseye! I crow. ‘Five shots. And room for improvement!’

I wheel around to face the line of trees. The pine at the far end of the ‘L’ is a good eighty yards away. At its base, a knot of roots rise above the grass. I give myself three shots, the second taking me within a yard of the target. The next has too much power, and the arrow nicks the root before skidding a couple of yards beyond. The tip is bent now.

‘Sloppy,’ I chide, sternly. ‘Con-cen-trate.’ A fourth shot finds the mark and, as I withdraw the arrowhead, I smell resin from the carpet of pine needles underfoot.

These trees are old, gnarled and weathered. Several stumps tell of storms and lightning; branches so brittle they’ve succumbed to arctic gales. Surviving branches sparse, offering little shade or shelter. Twigs and pinecones litter the ground.

Below the boxthorn there are signs of new burrows. If I tell dad he’ll bait them promptly, if he hasn’t already. The hedge looks quite uninhabitable, its treacherous thorns and branches an absurd tangle. Boxthorn grows anywhere, even in the parched wilderness, tenacious like the early British settlers who brought it here.

I study a line of hawthorn at the next fence. There’s a strainer post visible in a gap, an obvious target, and three shots should reach it. My estimate is correct and I collect the arrow with a hum of satisfaction. I step through the fence into shade. Here the ground falls away to a drain which collects stormwater, and passes through other farms to the foot of Terang where it is flows into a canal called The Peyjaark.

While this paddock floods frequently in winter, it is dry now, a dusty stubble after recent harvesting. Along the left fence stands a young cypress hedge and beyond, a gate and cattle trough, where I will stop upon my return.

I search for another target. There’s another hawthorn hedge at the next fence. Beyond it lies the last paddock, aptly called the Bottom Paddock. There’s a fence post in a gap and I estimate four shots, secretly hoping for three. I raise the bow, draw it right back and fire my arrow hard and high. It lands more than a third of the way across the field and is difficult to find in the stubble. I take aim again, with more accuracy and less power, and retrieve the arrow a single shot from the target. My target post is a weathered strainer. I clip it easily.

Hawthorn is one European specimen dad respects. Like boxthorn, it is tough, providing food, shade and a windbreak for cattle and birds. But it lacks the invasiveness of boxthorn. In earlier days a settler planted both these hedgerows as an avenue, stretching well beyond the boundaries of our farm: from Terang to the northwest, beyond the horizon. Between the rows a pipeline was laid, gravity feeding spring water to all the farms it crosses. A remarkable achievement. Dad has told me how materials were carried by bullock dray from Melbourne and Ballarat, and implements hauled by draft horse.

To better define my game, I choose targets that I will remember. The next is a clump of boxthorn at the boundary fence. Within its tangled branches lies a fox den. A third shot buries my arrow in the brambles which graze my arm as I reach to retrieve it. I decide to use a nearby post in future games.

Across our farm, and to the west, the land rises to the rim of Lake Keilembete. The house is obscured by the cypress hedges. Gates stand at opposite corners: one to the laneway, the other providing access to the centre paddock, to the heart of the farm. I choose that gatepost, although I cannot see it clearly, yet. The first shot falls well short of my expectations. I see the bow string has stretched, and I tighten it by looping it round the stave. Now it produces a healthy twang once more.

Over my right shoulder sits Mt Noorat, its grassy slopes speckled, rusty with dry grass and bracken. A spine of pine trees bristle along the crater ridge. Even from here I see the stain of the quarry on its flank. That gaping pit supplies the shire with scoria and gravel, and a truckload was spread on our driveway recently. I smile, remembering how I fell upon it like a seagull at a picnicker’s lunch, looking for gem stones. There were several volcanic bombs, their hearts filled with olivine. I had showed mum the prize, but its meaning seemed lost on her.
‘Mmm. Where’d you find that?’ she had asked, still busy with her sewing.
‘On the driveway. Aren’t the crystals beautiful?’ I had rotated a lump of the gems for her to admire. She glanced only briefly, more intent on sewing.
‘See the dark green crystals?’ I had prompted. ‘They might be emeralds.’
‘I don’t think so, dear.’
‘Why?’ I was crestfallen.
‘I don’t think emeralds are volcanic.’ Even her tone disappointed me.
Undeterred, I had shown her a tin filled with crystals, the result of a whole day’s work.
‘And what will you going to do with those?’
‘Add them to my treasure of course.’
‘And where’s that exactly?’
‘I can’t tell you. It’s a secret!’

***

I remove my windcheater, tie it by its sleeves around my waist, and clean the arrow tip with my thumbnail. I can see it needs straightening. My second shot reaches the cattle trough, only a few yards from my target. The arrow lies in a crazed yawn of dust, framed by clumps of dry sedge. The last shot buries the arrow tip at the foot of a sturdy, red gum post.

After belly-sliding over the gate, I lean back to scan the middle paddock. A herd of Aberdeen Angus graze near the hedge: they give me a few curious glances and then return to grazing. The paddock offers two options: I can either aim for the inner gate and head for the dairy, virtually finishing the game, or choose the side fence and the paddock beyond. I decide on the latter, my target being a gate post into the Two Pines paddock, and three shots at least. Drawing closer, I refine my target: the base of the windmill tower on the other side of the hedge. After my final shot, I stir the trough for late tadpoles.

The two pines stand alone in the centre of the paddock, only a couple of shots away. Retrieving my arrow from the base of the stunted tree I aim my next shot at a stand of scotch thistles by the remnants of an old fence. While not a permanent target, they will suffice. An easy second shot falls short, leaving a third for the thistles. I aim an angry kick at the base of the nearest plant and send it sprawling. My days of spring hoeing have missed them. With their seeds dispersed now, the damage done.

Gauging the angle of the sun, I realise I am late for breakfast and must head back. While the best targets are yet to come, I don’t want to rush my first game. I sprint to the next gate, spooking steers that have ran after me. They stop short, enshrouded by dust, snorting, their eyes wide, front legs apart. A couple of beasts drop their heads briefly before pivoting round and dashing off into the herd. The others follow.

I’m puffing by the time I reach the dairy and walk the last dusty stretch. Because archery is a bit of a secret, I my gear behind a girder in the machinery shed. Elizabeth is right. I need a quiver to carry extra arrows, and an arm band. My left forearm is welted by grazes from the bow string.

The remainder of the morning is one long, frustrating delay. After breakfast there are chores to be done and mum insists we go to church and, as usual, by the time we’re ready she decides not to go.
‘You always do this, mum. Why can’t we have the roast tonight?
‘Because Sunday dinner is at noon.’
‘Says who? We never get back from church till almost one. It’s always been like that.’
‘I’m not going to argue Jo, and I’m not going to church!’
‘Then why did you start getting ready in the first place?’
Her silence is dismissive. I give up and walk to the car.

Dad lets me skip Sunday school. While the other children file out, I remain for the sermon, far more engaging than reciting bible verses, and listening to stories with a crowd of unruly kids and scone-pushing mums. Better still, after church I am allowed to drive the car home. But the day is wasted, and I decide to wait until next Saturday, where I can be sure of enough time to play the entire game in one go.

***

On Saturday I wake to the sound of running water: rain trickling along gutterings and through downpipes. Disappointed, I rise and dress quietly, padding down the hallway to the kitchen.

With the kettle humming and two malto-milks in my pocket, I reach for my raincoat and open the back door. I peer out at the drizzling dawn, feel something akin to pangs of injustice. Buttoning my coat, I pull the hood down firmly. I don’t mind rain, but loathe drizzle like this. It reminds me of someone who can’t make up their mind.

After collecting my bow and arrow, I walk down beneath the big cypress to greet Husso. His tail drums the floor of the kennel and he peers up at me, hopefully.
‘Too wet, Huss,’ I tell him with a pat. I rest my gear on a 44-gallon drum near the gate, and climb up onto the sturdy timber, pulling my raincoat beneath me. The sunrise is smeared and pink under ill-defined clouds. Overcast. Coastal showers. Light south easterly breeze. Since we live a good hour’s drive from the coast I wonder why we are so blessed with coastal showers. I suppose we need the rain. Any rain.

Sliding down, I reach back for my bow and arrow. ‘Right. Let’s play!’ I take aim. The arrow thuds against pine bark and clatters to the ground. I retrieve it and shoot my way to the tree-scar in the rabbit paddock. So far the rain hasn’t bothered me. I fire at the hedgerow, and stroll through the paddock, inhaling the sweet dampness of soaked, tired grass.

Drizzle smatters my face and the lower half of my jeans, leaving me more clammy than wet. As I brush my fringe back under the rain hood, I spot the arrow. The next shot will bring me right by the target. I draw again, but the arrow slips from my grip, making the shot a dud. I dry my thumb and finger on my jeans and permit a second shot, firing the arrow straight into the fence post. Still room for improvement… and plenty of practice. I look up at the sky. In better conditions and with deadly accuracy, I could do that in two! A third shot strikes my next target, a fence post at the hawthorn avenue.

Returning via the windmill, my game is much improved. The drizzle has cleared and the clouds are thinning. I aim at the thistle patch, and watch the arrow slip into the tumble of thorns.
‘Two shots!’ I cry triumphantly, running to retrieve the arrow. A startled rabbit leaps from my path and scuttles for safety. There’s a rounded hollow in the grass tufts, the earth still dry and warm. I wonder: had I seen it, would I have tried to shoot it? But, no. That would destroy the heart of the game.

The next target is new, a fence post, two easy shots to its base. I climb through taut wires and regard my next challenge. The paddock is bare, treed along the far boundary fence, and nothing stands out. Then I remember. There’s a bore near the boundary; a rusted pipe protruding from the ground a foot or so. It’s not marked but I have a fair idea where it lies. Aiming high I picture the bore, and let my memory guide the arrow. It’s a mighty shot, followed by another that lands in tall grass. I stride through a sea of buzzing crickets to where the arrow has landed, perpendicular and camouflaged in long grass. I make a mental note to mark the tail shaft with red paint.

The bore pipe is almost invisible and lower in the ground than I remember. I weed around it, and stomp over the grass to make my target more visible. Pacing back to my bow I have calculated about sixty feet, a challenge indeed. Fitting the arrow, I eye the target very carefully, aiming a little higher and to the left, hoping for a final shot. I take a moment to relax, imagining the arrow’s flight before I set it free.

Arriving, I discover the arrow buried at the side of the pipe. This is more than beginner’s luck: rehearsing is the secret, just like I do the sweep of the axe blade when chopping wood. While cleaning the arrow tip, I study the next field. I call this one the corner paddock. It is the largest on the farm, sharing a boundary with the main road and a neighbour’s property. There’s an L-shaped cypress hedge at the corner. Half the paddock is heavily stubbled after summer grazing of rape and turnips. Across its centre lies a deep drain, lined with old trees, some eucalypts, but mostly pines and cypresses. Many have succumbed to storms and age; their torn limbs providing our firewood. The trees that remain are lop-sided.

I have a favourite tree in this paddock, down near the bottom fence. Once a robust cypress, it has subsided, with several limbs torn from its trunk by appalling gales. One low branch provides a swing. There I close my eyes and pretending I’m at a rodeo, riding a wild steer. The branch is also a favourite for the farm’s stud bull. He uses it as a scratching post during his brief tenure, and rolls in the dust beneath it, leaving a wide depression in the ground.

My next target will be over at the hedge. I aim high, watching the arrow intently, so as not to lose it. Striding through the stubble, I am swamped by the rank odour of cabbage. With my arrow located, I pause to study the hedge. It has never been an appealing place for exploration, encircled by barbed wire. Its boundary offers less privacy and the trees are old, their branches large and dense. There is no canopy floor of soft leaves and twigs to walk upon like in the hedge near the house.

I spot a stout corner post and choose this as my target, firing a long shot. The arrow lands just outside the stubbled corner, amidst docks, thistles and cape weed. If I overshoot the next, my arrow will be difficult to retrieve and so I take my time, aiming with instinct and skill, rehearsing the shot carefully, conscious of the shaft and the post. The arrow soars across bare earth into the shade of the trees. I cannot see where it’s landed. I run the last few yards, and give a hoot of delight. My arrow is spiked jauntily into the earth at the foot of the post. Filled with jubilation, I salute an imaginary stadium crowd that cheers me on.

After cleaning the tip, I turn and aim across the paddock towards my favourite tree. As I release the arrow, I watch its flight, my arms still braced, fists clenched, encouraging it along. As it falls earthward I line up the spot with a fence post behind it and begin my malodorous walk. Here and there an uprooted turnip lies half-eaten. Now if this was a crop of peas it would be so much nicer. Prompted by this thought I reach into my pocket for a forgotten biscuit.

Locating the arrow is easy for it has landed upright, clearly visible in the ghost-land of stumps. I’m in the middle of the crop, needing two more shots to reach the tree. As I flex the bow, I notice how tender my fingers have become from all the gripping, and my forearm is welted pink. Undeterred, I let the arrow fly, smiling with satisfaction as it dives into a crowd of dried weeds surrounding my cypress.
‘Brilliant,’ I exclaim. ‘Bloody brilliant!’ Again my crowd goes wild.

I bound over the crop, but come to a screeching halt twenty yards from the target. A foot in front of me stands the electric fence, beyond it, a thin, lush strip of rape, pulsing beneath with clouds of white butterflies. I tear off a lacy, moth-eaten leaf and test the wire. A regular pulse kicks through my hand. Hopping on all fours I climb beneath it and wade into the crop. Soon I regret my haste, and emerge at the outer edge drenched to the hips. Dew is one of the many hardships a warrior must bear.

Ten yards beyond lies my tree and I know there’s a good target on the other side, where dad tidied a ragged wound with his chainsaw. I aim passed the trunk, sinking my arrow into soft earth, and I turn for an easy shot.

‘Very satisfactory, young archer.’ Normally I’d reward myself with a ride on the swinging branch, but this time I hesitate. No. It’s not part of the game. That’s for afterwards. I brush the bark affectionately and acknowledge my lesson. There’s more to the archer’s game than just fun, and it draws me on.

Each tree has a scar or mark on its trunk, and while I hit all of them within a few shots, they are not necessarily easy. The first is a lip of orange fungus on a dead branch, the next a broad piece of thick smooth bark, similar to those I prise off other pines for carving material. The third target is a bubble of amber resin still oozing from a crack on a low-hanging limb. A hollow in the next eucalypt reveals an abandoned beehive, honeycomb still sticky and soft.

The following tree has a fallen limb at its feet that resembles a distressed arm. I choose the raw stump as my target, not for any macabre reason, it’s just a strong feature. There’s a gall-stunted stem on the trunk a lanky eucalypt, and the last two trees are pines: the first target an amputee’s scar, where bark has healed over the edges, leaving only an eye. And my final target, a cypress, where hooks of bark and stunted twigs hold wads of cattle hair. The limb is well polished from use, and more visible from the far side. It costs me an extra shot but, with that done, I can turn westward, for home.

The next target is a blackwood, the only one I know of on the farm. Its bare trunk offers no branches upon which to climb or perch above. Yet it is an imposing tree, the bark creased and rough, the leaves leathery. There’s a grassy mound at its feet, with blocks of hewn stone and bricks protruding from the turf. I’ve already asked dad about these.

‘Your granny built a pigsty there years ago.’ He had seemed irritated by the memory of it. ‘That mound of stones is all that’s left. Not a very successful project.’ Almost uncomfortably he adds, ‘she shouldn’t have built it there. Grandad told her not to. It was wrong.’
‘What do you mean ‘wrong’?’ I had asked.
‘That tree marks a sacred place, sacred to local aborigines.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘This whole farm, miles around. All this district once belonged to aboriginal people. Settlers drove them off. Every last one.’
‘You mean our farm is aboriginal land?’
‘Well, not any more, but it was, and all of Lake Keilembete, Terang, Mortlake and Camperdown. The lot.’
‘How do you know all this?’ I was stunned. No one had even alluded to it before.
‘Grandad told me.’

I was genuinely shocked. ‘Where did they go when they were chased away?’
‘I’m not sure,’ he’d admitted. ‘I think they’re the ones whose descendants live in Framlingham Reserve.’
‘Did grandad chase them off?’
‘Lord, no!’ Dad was horrified at the suggestion. ‘Not him! They were long gone by then! But I still find their stones when I plough.’
‘Stones? What stones?’
‘Like the one we use as a doorstop in the workshop. That’s a grinding stone women used to make flour. And there’s a stone axe-blade knocking around somewhere.’
While appalled at this, I wanted to know more. ‘So how is that tree a sacred place?’
‘I’m not sure, dear, but I think one of the early settlers over Mortlake way was yarning to grandad and must have mentioned it. Mt Noorat’s a sacred place, too.’

Now, as I stand by this very tree, I am genuinely moved by its presence and history. Yet I can never imagine its true significance. In fact, every step of the game has crossed paths with history and culture well beyond my understanding and the experience leaves a feeling like an old wound, unhealed due to ignorance. The blackwood represents a sad, empty place that needs to be filled, but I don’t know how or where to start.

I turn towards the dairy, realising what the game is about. It has threaded me through the land itself, through its life and its memory. And each game I play in the future will scribe a new circle, a new face of the same soul, until I understand what these ancient ones have left for me here.

My last target is a gatepost near the stockyards. It seems an anti-climax after the heady last stage. The arrow bounces, clattering on manure-smeared cement, and slides across the finish line. I pick it up, acknowledging the end of the game, released from its grip and power. The drab shed walls, the dust and dead grass are hardly a glorious banner. I have completed a timeless journey, far exceeding the few miles I’ve walked. Here is a new love for my home in a heart that seems much older than my body. I know I have not been alone on this journey, anymore than I have through my life in this place. Whoever guides me, ancestor, spirit or those of the great Dreaming, it must have been they who have walked beside me, theirs the voices I have heard and trusted. And their truth is irrefutable, absolute, just like the circle I have completed.

Advertisements

THE ARCHER’S BOW

Archer's Bow

The Archer’s Bow

It’s the end of a wet school day and I shelter under the elm tree. My irritation grows as each bus pulls away from the school gate. Teachers leave one by one, some asking me if I’m okay.

‘Yes thanks. Just waiting for mum,’ I tell them, more embarrassed as each car drives off.

‘Should’ve ridden to the bus stop,’ I mutter. ‘Bugger the weather!’ I kick a half-buried acorn. This is one occasion where living in town would be good: just to be able to walk home from school with friends instead of relying on mum’s absent-mindedness. Because of her I am late for brownies, for ballet and church. Why? It’s not even rhetorical any more.

I select a green acorn from the pile at my feet, and peel off the cap with my fingernails and teeth. There are only so many things even an inventive child like me can do with an acorn, and I reach my limit just as the ute slides to a halt beside me.

‘Had trouble with the gears again,’ mum explains, already clicking her dental plate. We avoid eye contact as I slide in beside her, dumping my school bag on the floor. Even with two large cushions under her rump, she cranes to see over the dashboard and must stretch her legs to reach the pedals. Finally we surge forward, and the battle with the gear stick resumes. The three miles pass in silence, our anger thick and unfathomable.

Arriving home, I step out of the vehicle beside a swathe of cut branches strewn around the perimeter of the big cypress tree in the centre of the yard. Husso greets me at the garden gate, his white-tipped tail waving. Dad must be having a quick cuppa before milking.

Recently a late summer storm announced the onset of autumn, a time of preparation and catching up. But trimming the cypress this hard is new. I dump my bag at the back gate, and return to inspect the desecration. There are no broken limbs, but a closer look reveals trimming along the north and westerly sides, facing the hayshed and workshops. Above me hangs an electrical wire, crossing the yard between two poles. It is along this wire that dad has pruned. I reach for one of the clippings, grasping it as an archer would a long bow. The stance touches something within me and I take heed, selecting five more, setting them aside in a corner of the machinery shed for later.

I decide not to let my surliness towards mum spoil the harmony of the past week. Dad stands at the kitchen sink, draining his cup and gazing out the window. Mum is telling about a tiff she’s had with CWA women: the reason why she was late, I assume. There have been several scraps lately, bickering over projects and committee work. Mum is tired of it and keen to start a new craft organisation.

‘I’ve made some inquiries about a second hand potter’s wheel I saw advertised in Warrnambool,’ she says. ‘A treadle wheel. They want one-seventy-five for it.’ She has already transformed the laundry into a studio, and produced coil pots and plates after classes in Warrnambool. I look to dad for a reaction, but he’s glued to the window, giving nothing away.
‘I’ll have a look tomorrow, before class,’ mum continues.
‘Good idea,’ I suggest, although privately I’m not so sure. ‘How will you know if it’s any good?’
‘I’ve been using a wheel at classes for a few months, dear and have a good idea what to look for.’
‘But they’re electric wheels, aren’t they?’
‘Yes, and far more expensive.’ Her tone is changed. ‘I’ll leave for Warrnambool earlier, straight after picking you up from school.’
A punctual pick-up at last.
‘And you’ll have to cook the dinner.’
‘Okay by me, mum. Chops and vegies?’
‘Easiest.’

I begin clearing the table. ‘Dad, what are you going to do with all those prunings?’
He turns, still with a far away look. ‘Hee!’ and thinks a moment. ‘Add them to the pile in the horse paddock, I s’pose. We’ll burn them in the spring.’
‘Why not keep them for Guy Fawkes Night, Merlin.’
‘Not anymore,’ he sighs.
‘Why ever not?’
He reaches into his overalls for a handkerchief and wipes his nose. ‘Not allowed. Not since Eldrige’s haystack burned. Fire-bans start in November.’
‘Well, ‘I’m off to feed the chooks,’ I announce. ‘Want any vegies, mum?’
‘Dad’s brought in some carrots thanks, dear. Gather a few Grannies from the orchard, will you? Windfalls will do.’
‘Right.’ I grab the wicker basket and head out.

Most of the apples have grub holes but they’ll be fine for stewing. I deposit them at the back steps on my way to the chook-house. A couple of hens dawdle at the rear of the shed. I call the late-comers, ‘Chook-chook-chooky,’ quite loudly. Chookie is also the nickname of one of the neighbour’s sons, and he’s milking in the dairy across the road. After topping up the water bowl I grab the only egg, and latch the door.

With the egg safely deposited in a nest of nails on the workshop bench, I slip dad’s bone-handled paring knife into my pocket and head out to gather the cypress prunings into piles, ready for the trailer. Once the chore is complete, I retrieve my stash of branches and strip away the twigs and leaves with dad’s knife. Peeling green bark exposes the damp, resinous pale wood. Any remaining lumps and bumps are sliced with the blade.

I hold the most promising branch before me, checking its balance, flexing it over my knee, all this with an instinct I cannot explain. I will need good cord for a bow string. Mum has plenty in her stationery cupboard. I return dad’s knife, deposit four of the bows behind the workshop door and toss the other into the pile outside. As I pocket the egg I realise stringing must wait, it’s almost sunset.

I arrange the apples in a stoneware dish, one of mum’s first pieces, glazed the colour of golden syrup. Mum scrubs carrots.
‘You’d better get onto your homework,’ she reminds me.
‘Haven’t got much. Just reading and sewing. I’ll do it after dinner.’
‘All right. Just don’t get behind.’ She knows I loathe school sewing, yet enjoy embroidery, cross-stitch and tapestries she provides. Mum has old-fashioned expectations: and encourages me to prepare for marriage, with a fine collection of home-sewn linen, crocheted doilies and decorative pieces for my trousseau.

While mum is distracted, I raid the stationery cupboard, and shove the ball of waxy, white cord in my pocket. A saucepan lid clatters to the floor. I move forward to help, detecting the aroma of charred lamb shops and the buttery sweetness of mashed potato.

* * *

In sewing class, I tell Elizabeth about the bow I am making. She listens, bemused, as I explain how I prepared the branches, and plan to attach cord as a bowstring. She knows me well, and is neither surprised nor impressed with my latest project.
‘What about arrows?’ she asks. This is something that has completely escaped my attention.
‘Dunno, haven’t really thought about that.’ I’m aghast at forgetting such an important part of archer’s kit. What kind of warrior would overlook that? I return to my chain stitch sampler, frustrated at spending the whole afternoon wasting so much time on sewing.
‘Well,’ I declare, after some thought. ‘I could use some cane from the stand in the orchard.’
‘What cane?’ She knows the orchard well.
‘You remember. As you go in through the archway in the hedge? It’s right there in front of you, a big clump of cane,’ I prompt. ‘Near the mulberry tree.’
‘Oh, yeah, I think I remember. We played hidey in it.’
‘That’s it. So, lengths of that should work as arrows. What do you reckon? All I’d have to do then is find a way to make arrowheads.’
‘And a quiver to put them in?’ she reminds me.
‘One thing at a time. Gotta get the bow and arrows working yet.’
I can’t wait to get home now.

Mum is still the last parent to arrive.
‘Thought you were in a hurry to get to Warrnambool,’ I remind her.
‘Just get in! I’m running a bit late, that’s all.’

She pulls up outside the house, ready for a speedy departure, and shows me what she’s prepared for dinner.
‘I’m dining with some classmates at the Palaise,’ she says. ‘Now, there are two chops for dad and one for you. Your father’s in Noorat and should be back soon. He’s been gone an hour.’

I note the use of the word ‘father’. This means there’s been a disagreement between them. Already dressed, mum pays a final visit to the bathroom and, in her absence I nip up the hall and change out of my school clothes.
‘I’m off now,’ she calls. ‘Should be home about ten-ish.’ Her tone is business-like.
‘Okay. I’ll tell dad. Have a good class and stuff.’
Her footsteps fade through the kitchen. As the car door closes and I hear the engine start, I breathe a sigh of relief.

With the roll of cord still in my jeans pocket, I grab mum’s secateurs and head for the orchard, circling the stand of cane. From various thicknesses I choose four, cutting them several feet long, and trim off the branches. Then, down at the workshop, I select my best stave and get to work with dad’s rasp, smoothing knots and making a groove at each end for the bow string. I fasten the cord round the thick end first, then stretch it to the top, securing it in the groove. Bending the bow, I loop the cord around the top again, tightening it some more. Now, as I hold it aloft, it really looks and feels like a long-bow. I draw back the string, measure the length needed for arrows, and release it with a menacing slap.

Selecting a stick of cane I make a notch in the thicker end, fit it to the string, and draw it back. But the bowstring slips from the groove and grazes my forearm. I try again, wary this time. The string sits firmly in the notch and I draw it further, until the bow is a semi-circle. I step out of the workshop door, aiming towards the big cypress, the arrow tip resting on the web of my thumb. It flies a few feet, landing sideways. Segments of cane have caught against both the bow and my hand, slowing its flight.

I rasp the nodes smooth, polish them with fine sandpaper and try again. The arrow fires better but goes no further, or straighter. The shaft is too light. I cut a thicker length of cane and prepare it the same way. However the segments are bent and the arrow flies sideways and lands flat. Obviously cane is not suitable; I need proper wood, perhaps a finer branch from the cypress prunings.

I grab dad’s knife and enter the horse paddock. The bonfire pile is covered with a layer of green prunings. I search for thin, straight saplings, cutting and trimming a piece, but it’s clearly not straight enough and tapers too quickly. The next is bowed and too heavy. Disheartened, I fling them back on the pile and feed the chooks.

‘Another hungry night ahead for Mr Fox, girls,’ I chirp. ‘Maybe I’ll be able to hunt him down with my bow and arrows.’ The hens look quite impressed, eyeing me sideways from their perches. ‘Well, no rest for the wicked.’ As I replenish their water, I hear the ute thrum over the cattle grid.

Dad is unloading drums of chemicals at the storage shed.
I greet him warmly. ‘Can I help?’
‘Hmm,’ he grunts. ‘Your mother’s gone, I see.’
‘Yep.’
‘So your chief cook and bottle washer?’
‘That’s me, dad. I hope you live to tell the tale.’
He grins. ‘Here,’ he hands me two bottles. ‘Take these down to the washroom, will you.’
As I emerge dad is reversing the ute in, beside me. We empty bags of bran and buttermilk into the storage box.
‘Thanks dear.’ He pockets the keys and dons his toweling hat, turning to go.
‘Dad?’ I tag behind him.
‘Mmm?’
‘I’ve made a long bow from a cypress branch but I can’t find anything straight and heavy enough for arrows. I tried cane but it’s too light, and the cypress prunings are all bent. Do you have any idea what I could use?’
He stops, regarding the vegetable garden. ‘What about doweling?’
‘Doweling? What’s that?’
‘Wood used in carpentry to join things, to make pegs. Like the wood on your mother’s clothes drying rack.’
‘That’s way too thick.’
‘Comes in different sizes.’
‘Oh.’ Hope wells again.
‘What size do you want?’ he asks.
‘About the same as my little finger.’
He rolls his lip. ‘That’s pretty fine. Think you can get it, though. Come into town with me on Saturday and we’ll get a couple of sticks.’
‘Thanks dad.’
‘What are you using for arrowheads?’
‘Dunno. Got any ideas?’
‘What about copper. There are scraps of it under the workbench you can use. You can cut it with tin snips.’

Saturday is what dad calls a stinker. The sky is bleached already and, as I climb into the passenger side of the ute, the desiccating northerly grabs at the door.
‘Good day for a fire,’ hr says, climbing in.
‘Reckon. What are you getting at the timberyard?’
‘Your dowel.’
‘I thought you had to get something.’
‘Yes. Welding rods from the hardware next door, and there’s a parcel at the railway station for your mother. Some more glazes for her pottery, I s’pose.’

The timber yard is already abuzz, with utes, trucks, dads, kids and dogs. I seem to be the only girl there. Our neighbour, Ken, has parked nearby and his wife remains in truck.
‘Hello Mrs Fahey,’ I wave shyly.
‘G’day Joanne.’
Grrr. How hard is it to get my name right.’
‘Ken’s inside,’ she adds.
Ken the guy who helps us cart our hay most years and, in return, dad lends him farm implements and tools. Dad says he’s a good bloke; that he takes care of things and he’s thorough. He and Shirley have three kids including twin girls, but they’re all a bit young for me to play with.

I traipse in after dad, keen to choose my own dowel. It feels odd, milling around among so many males. I feel out of place, a trespasser. I nose along, watching dad inspect shelves of timber. Finally he stops and pulls at some lengths of dowel.
‘Here.’ He hands me one. ‘This is the size you want, isn’t it?’
I picture my bow. ‘Is there a finer one?’
Dad steps back and peers into the shelves, finally hauling out a slender stick.
‘Yep! That’s the size. May I have two, please?’ Each stick is about five feet long. ‘How much are they?’ I ask, taking hold of them.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll book them,’ he says. ‘You keep your pocket money.’
I smile broadly in thanks.
‘There are birthdays coming up.’ He grins. ‘Not just yours, either.’

We join a group of men gathered at the door of the cashier’s office. When it’s our turn, dad sticks his head in: ‘You can book these, Jack,’ and turns. ‘Put these in the back of the ute, Jo, and wait for me there. I’ll only be a minute.’
‘Can’t I come inside, too?’
‘Alright, if you want to. I’ll wait at the top of the stairs.’

I slide the timber into the ute’s tray and scurrying back to catch him. We enter a dim passage way and follow steps down to a basement. It’s a general store, really. Different levels for each department. Clothes are on the mezzanine floor, Manchester and groceries at ground level and the hardware below. There’s a belief among children of the town that Santa Clause lives up stairs, behind a grilled gate that is guarded by a Doberman. I’ve seen the dog but I’m not sure about the myth. If Santa exists at all, he wouldn’t have a savage dog at his house.

The store is cool after the furnace of the morning. While dad heads over to find his welding rods, I admire all the hand tools, fascinated, even though I have no idea what most of them are for. A large saw beckons and I lifted it down and study its teeth. The metal is flawless compared to the dark, mottled steel of dad’s saws, but the handle lacks the smooth grip of the ones I use.
‘You should consider carpentry instead of nursing,’ says dad, sidling up to me with a long thin box in his hand.
‘What’s this saw for, dad?’
‘Ripping timber.’ He sees my puzzlement. ‘For raw wood; timber for building houses and sheds.’
I turn and follow him up the stairs into the glaring day.

Back home, I measure arrow lengths and cut the dowel, before making a notch in one end. I have made four arrows, ready for tips. I’ve researched arrowheads in my National Geographics. Most are made of flint, and glued on with black gummy stuff. The European ones are of bronze and iron, worked by a blacksmith, way too hard for me to make. And they all have feathers on their tails to guide their flight. Too hard, I decide.

I locate the copper scraps dad mentioned. Some are already triangular in shape. I trim one piece to the shape of an arrow, and flatten it with a hammer; then file the edges sharp. The metal is soft metal, like roofing iron, and I like the brightness of the freshly worked edge. And it has a strong smell. There’s copper wire on the bench, too. With pliers, I grip and work it, binding the trunk of the arrowhead to the shaft, pulling and twisting it tight. I finish one and head out the door to give it a try.

As I climb the wide gate, I sense a wave of energy, and feel as if I have walked into bright light. I fit my arrow to the bowstring and I draw it back, tilting the bow high. I hold my breath I release it and let it fly, watching the shaft sail high, landing some forty feet away, the arrowhead buried menacingly in the ground.
‘Yesss!’ I hoot, elated and retrieve the arrow and take a second shot, aiming at the craggy trunk of a pine. The arrow sails passed the tree and skids into a bed of pine needles. Undeterred, I fire again. The arrow travels a steady fifteen yards, thudding into the soft bark. Very impressive. But the tip is bent and loose. I bind the next one on the shaft like the leaf of a lily, giving it strength and simplicity.

With repairs complete and four arrows tipped, I bound over to the house, a fully armed warrior ready for nearly anything.

CHRISTMAS

Our first Christmas tree

CHRISTMAS A
year is inconceivably long for a six-year-old. While school offers worldly insights, I still measure time in days, weeks at most. The four seasons are my calendar and I know summer and Christmas belong together, six weeks with no daily rush to brush teeth or find a missing ribbon; free from buckles, ties and fetters. By late November, stories of wise men, baby Jesus and a bright star enter our lessons and carols fill our classrooms. Thursday is the last day of school for the year and we are dismissed early. Mum makes a rare stop at the milk bar and gives us sixpence to buy lollies. We share these with neighbouring children who have hitched a ride home. At the road-side mailbox Nick and I grapple for the newspaper, bread and mail. We haul our weighty school bags into the house, disgorging mounds of books, pencils and locker flotsam. Uniforms are ceremoniously discarded before we leap from the veranda to begin a game of chasey that lasts all summer. After
three years of school Nick has a sense of end-of-year traditions, while I’m unused to planning my time. Restlessness drives me out into the dusk, where I ride my bike and contemplate the prospect of an endless summer.

* * * * *

Dawn seeps in through my window: a lone blackbird warbling from deep in the garden. As the twittering of sparrows rises, I remember there is no school, that stretching before me lie weeks of simple blessedness. This realisation is louder than any alarm clock and I slither out of bed. A warm breeze promises dry, sunny weather, so I don shorts, singlet and a shirt discarded from yesterday. Padding down the hallway, I pause to peer at the barometer. The needle agrees with my forecast, though I dare not tap for accuracy. The kitchen table is already set for
breakfast. I reach for newspaper from a small pile by the stove and slide a sheet free. Opening the firebox, I scrunch the page, poking it into sleepy embers, adding kindling and larger pieces as flames lick the wood. I slide the kettle onto the hot plate. The stove creaks as I stretch for a biscuit tin on the mantelpiece, and take two malto-milks, munching one while I pocket the other.

My feet slip into thongs at the back door, and I tiptoe out along the driveway. Bird song still rises from near the lemon tree, on the other side of a rose thicket. As I close my eyes to, drink its sweetness, it ceases suddenly, and the blackbird scuttles away in a flurry of alarm. A sleek, black cat emerges from the bushes. He has a furry white bandana across his snout and throat.

‘Pirate!’I snort in disgust, ignoring his invitation for a pat. I slip over the drive way gate into the yard, my thongs squeaking as I walk.
Beneath the big cypress tree Husso, our border collie farm dog, stands in greeting by his kennel, still chained from the day before. I ruffle his fur and bend to set him free. Together we cross to the wide gate. Paddocks warm in the bloom of dawn. Perched on the gate, I await the
sunrise. As cows file by on their way to the dairy, a haze of gold crosses the fields like an inrushing tide. Beyond the next fence lie rows of stubble where lizards scurry, and field mice and rabbits graze their last for the night. Husso’s tail thumps. He is eager for exercise.

We step forward into a lacy geometry of spider webs. The border collie darts and bounds well ahead of me. We meet at the next fence. Husso dives after quarry before snorting and bounding to the next. A sweet dampness rises on the warming currents and larks twitter invisibly in the infinite dome of blue. A startled rabbit scampers to the boxthorn warren and Husso gives chase, nosing at the burrow with his tail waving eagerly. But I’m not interested.

* * * * *

I’m not looking forward to another Christmas on the dining room couch after vacating my room for the comfort of my aunt and uncle. The couch is overly stuffed, and covered in cracked, green leather. It is cold and hard. With this prospect, I leap at news of an alternative. The first clue is dad balanced atop his foot ladder outside the bathroom door. He is rummaging through the uppermost cupboard of the linen press where rumours of mystery have defied my exploration. I expect him to hand me boxes of Christmas decorations so I’m surprised when he tosses down several woollen blankets, reeking of camphor.

I help him carry them out through the narrow passageway to the side veranda. Between us we  shake them over the lawn. I have never seen them before.

‘They belonged to my mother,’ he explains. Granny Clarke died long before I arrived. ‘She brought them out with her from England when she
married grandad,’ he explains.

‘That’s why they look like kilts then,’ I suggest, admiring the tartan.

‘Not exactly. They’re travelling rugs.’

‘Why did you get them out, then?’

‘Well, your mother and I have an idea about where you can sleep over Christmas. We know it’s not fair that you give up your room for Aileen and Horrie each year and you don’t get much sleep on that couch, do you?’

‘No,’ I admit.

‘Well, we can hang these over the clothes line, see, and set them up as tents, with a bed beneath each one.’

‘That’s a great idea.’ I jiggle with excitement. I’ve never been in a tent before.

‘We thought you might like to try it out as an adventure. Pretend you are camping.’

‘But what do we sleep on?’

‘We’ve thought of that, too. I’ve bought two stretcher beds from the army disposals store. I thought we could use them for a camping, perhaps up in The Grampians sometime.’

‘But you only got two. Won’t you need four?’

He laughs, brushing my cheek with his hand. ‘We can’t all leave the farm at once, can we? I will go camping with you, and then Nick and
mum can have a turn. So, for now, you and Nick are to set up your beds beneath these blankets. And get some bedding from mum.’

I am speechless with delight. ‘Run and fetch some clothes pegs for me, will you?’ dad says, ‘and let’s see if this works.’

‘How many?’

‘I’m not sure … say, twelve.’

I scurry off to the laundry. There are two kinds of pegs so I grab the whole basket. ‘I didn’t know what kind of pegs you want.’ I explain, lowering them at his feet. In my absence dad’s thrown the blankets over both ropes of the clothesline.

‘But they don’t reach the floor,’ I point out.

‘Mmm.’ Dad crosses to the outer corner of the veranda and unties a cord, shaking the clothesline free over little pullies. It slackens off, and the blankets drop down. I dive between the first, looking up into the space inside.

‘Magic. A room from a blanket.’

Grinning, dad pulls the second one further along so there is a space between them. ‘I think we’ll need some bricks to anchor the edges and keep them open.’ I turn, heading off for the brick heap, but he stops me.
‘No, dear. I’ll get the bricks. You put the pegs away, please.’

I muster a flicker of enthusiasm.

After dad and Nick place their armloads of bricks on the veranda, Nick leaps forward, staking his claim on the furthest blanket.

‘I bags this one,’ he declares.

I haven’t given it a thought. However, looking along the veranda, I fail to see his advantage. In fact, he’s chosen the end nearest our parent’s window, and further south. That suits me. Less cold drafts and further away from mum and dad. Plus I’ll be nearer the side door.

‘Okay.’ I agree, trying to sound a little disappointed.

‘Now, I want to see how the stretcher-beds fit first,’ says dad, returning from insde the house with two long cardboard boxes. Nick reaches for one while dad unpacks the other. From lengths of wood, springs and folded canvas, two beds emerge, and I’m invited to be the guinea pig. I ease down cautiously, unsure whether the hinges will hold. But, as I lie right down, my face lights up.

‘It’s so comfortable, Nick. Try it out.’

Dad watches, beaming satisfaction. ‘Well, that works splendidly. Nick, slide yours along and see how it fits beneath the blanket.’ The bed seems well sheltered. ‘I’ll leave you kids to set up the rest, then. Now, ask mum for help with bedding. Don’t go plundering her best linen.’

Nick arranges his tent while I manoeuvre my bed into place, anchoring the walls with bricks. There is a yard or so of space between us and I have an idea. I run to the doll’s house and drag the door open. I push some musty plywood to one side. Behind them is a tiny chest of  drawers, ideal for my clothes. I lumber it back to the veranda piece by piece. There are spiders’ nests in the drawers, some still inhabited. After a good brush and wipe, they are ready.

Meanwhile, Nick has a small cardboard suitcase for his clothes, and slides this beneath his stretcher. Mum brings our linen in a clothes basket. For once, we need little encouragement to make our beds. She watches, delighted by our enthusiasm. I pin my tent-end closed behind the chest of drawers.

‘They’re your old nappy pins,’ she informs me.

‘Really? Well here’s the baby using them! There won’t be drafts in here,’ I declare, hooking a clothes hanger on the clothesline.

‘What’s that for?’ ‘My hair ribbons.’ ‘Of course.’

What difference one day can bring: from a gloomy dining room to the almost outdoors. My bedtime is earlier than usual and I have trouble getting comfortable and warm. After an hour, I fill a hot water bottle at the kitchen tap and tuck it between my sheets, and spread my dressing gown over the blankets for extra warmth. I ease back on the stretcher, still lacking confidence that it will hold me, and wary of Nick’s pranks. I doze as music drifts from the sitting room radio. Later, mum tiptoes out to check on us and wakes me with her torch. I relax
again as the side-door closes. God. I hope she doesn’t do that every night!

I hear Nick’s regular breathing and know he’s asleep. Beyond him are noises of the night. Some are quite distinct: the scuttle of black birds in the orchard, twittering starlings from their roost in the cane, and restless sparrows in the cotoneaster. Behind them, crickets drone. I wake much later to a blackbird’s song. Surely it’s not morning. Then other birds stir, twittering briefly before settling again, leaving the eternal
buzz of crickets and an occasional falling leaf or twig.

I sleep again till dawn, waking, confused to the sound of the anguished cry of a baby. At first I’m unfocused. Was it the end of a dream? But so real. Raising the tent flap, I stare out in disbelief. Pirate, the cat, slinks along the driveway, emitting an eerie human cry. The yowl is awful, distressing. I hiss at him curtly and he stops, peering round, his tail bristling. I move the flap again and he sees me and sits down, watching. Then he begins to groom himself. I shiver, easing back beneath the blankets to sleep again, waking well into morning. Sunlight streams through the blanket wall. I emerge still sleepy and reach for my hairbrush. Nick is already up. At the bathroom I realise my tent needs a towel
and I need breakfast. The night air has left me ravenous, intent on a bowl full of Weetbix, honey and milk. *

* * * * *

‘Dad?’ I call to him as he removes his boots on the back door step. ‘Do birds usually sing in the middle of the night?’

‘What time was that, dear?’ he peers at me over his shoulder.

‘I don’t know. Didn’t have a clock.’
‘Well…’ He disappears into the laundry to wash, and I take his cue to follow. ‘There’s a thing called the midnight awakening,’ he says, turning the tap at the hand-basin. ‘And it happens throughout the world, so I’m told.’ He scrubs his hands with a nailbrush and Solvol. ‘Between about midnight and one o’clock in the morning,’ he adds, cupping both hands to rinse his face.

‘And then what happens?’

‘Animals stir.’

‘And birds sing?’

‘Yes. I’ve heard blackbirds around that time.’

‘Why?’ ‘I’m not sure. Perhaps they wake each other by stretching, checking all is well,’ he suggests. ‘Is that what you heard?’

‘I think so. I heard a blackbird. It was lovely.’

He smiles. ‘You’ve heard something very special. Some people call it a blessing and others a curse.’

‘Why a curse?’
‘That’s supposed to be the time a soul is most likely to leave the body. And sometimes they don’t come back.’

He dries his hands, brightening. ‘You know, funny thing about blackbirds. You can almost set your watch by their song.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘You’ll notice they sing regularly, four times a day: at dusk, midnight, dawn and mid-afternoon.’ He dries his face on the roller towel. ‘I don’t know if it happens generally, though…but it certainly does here on our farm.’

Awed by this mystery I follow dad into the kitchen.

Each evening, I listen to the sounds of night. They transport me like music, awakening me only when the birds stir. The blackbird’s song is most magical, too beautiful for such an ordinary-looking bird. It doesn’t always wake me outright, often slipping into my dreams. Pirate’s prowls are less regular and I greet his strangeness with my hiss of disgust. I rise early, bathing at the tap by the coral tree, and head for
sunrise with Husso.
*****

This evening we gathered round the piano, singing hymns, folksongs and carols to mum’s accompaniment. Now that we’re in bed, classical music drifts out from the radio. Sometimes dad plays records. It has always been so – my first memory ever. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and it’s been a week since school ended. Auntie Aileen, Uncle Horrie and grandad are expected before dinner. I hope they will be all right. It has been very warm, and the evening breezes fail to cool the house. This climate is quite unpredictable. We’re never sure if we will swelter over
Christmas dinner or welcome warm festivities on a cold, blustery day.

My excitement is poorly matched by Brahms this evening. Unable to sleep, I dress quietly and make my way round to the back gate, where my bike rests against the fence. Dusk has rendered it colourless, invisible but for chrome. Its handlebars and mudguards are rusty. Unlike Nick’s bike, mine has no gears or brake levers but, while it is a hand-me-down, I don’t mind at all. I’m grateful to have a bike. As I reach the driveway, the only sound is tyres crunching loudly in the stillness. I wake Husso as I circle the big cypress. His tail taps the kennel floor. Picking up speed I pass the machinery shed, and anticipate the gentle incline to the road. My tyres thrum across the cattlegrid, and I peer down the road for headlights. It is clear and, as I turn left, a warm westerly breeze blows loose strands of hair from my face.

I turn at a neighbour’s gateway and I retrace my path, labouring up a gentle rise to our farm. Racing down the driveway, I complete my first circuit. The kitchen light flicks on. I see mum’s silhouette at the sink. I pull over into deeper shadow by the windmill. I watch and wait. The
pump kicks into life at my side, startling me. I peer up at the windmill. The fan blades turn slowly. Once the light is off and the house slips back into darkness, I resume my ride, completing several more circuits. Halfway back on the last lap I pause, standing astride my bike and peering at the sky. Compared to the Bethlehem star on Christmas cards, our stars seem small and pale. I wonder how the wise men knew when to travel. And was it winter there, or summer? I must check the atlas tomorrow. Even without moonlight the cypress hedge contrasts clearly against the night sky, its golden tips mocking the stars. Pity dad hadn’t planted one in the garden. Then we’d have a real Christmas tree. The tops of cypresses resemble Christmas trees. Now there’s an idea. I ride the circuit again in order to think this through, before sidling up to my parking spot at the fence. I feel drowsy and welcome the thought of sleep.

* * * * *

Upon waking to Christmas Eve the first thing I remember is the cypress hedge. I dress purposefully. With hair done and bed made I slip over the gate and head down between the orchard and shed. I stoop beneath a skirt of branches and reach in, burrowing up through the thicket of
branches, and hauling myself onto a floor of sorts. I climb the nearest trunk. The branches are evenly spaced for easy steps. Soon my head pokes through the canopy and I look out, over to the rooftop of the house. But I don’t have time to waste on sightseeing. This treetop is storm-damaged and untidy, but the neighbouring ones look better. I clamber passed a few trunks and climb again. This tree has a perfect tip. I’m careful not to damage the tender branches as I slither back down, marking the trunk with a snapped twig, dangling low. I count seven trunks on my way out, and seven to the far end. I will ask for permission first though, and think of a container for the tree. And that raises another thought. What if mum doesn’t want a real tree in her dining room? I’ll ask her before I speak to dad. The best way to soften her up is with a cup of tea in bed.

Brushing off resinous leaves and twigs, I race to the house, and hurriedly stoke the fire. But I’ve left my run too late. The kettle barely steams
when mum appears, buttoning up her dressing gown.

‘Why are you up so early, snookums?’ she asks, her face crinkled with sleep.

‘I woke to the blackbird’s song and remembered it’s Christmas Eve. I went for a walk.’

‘Sounds nice. Are you excited about Christmas?’

‘Course! I’m looking forward to seeing grandad again.’

‘Have you written your Santa letter?’

‘Not yet. I’ve tried to be good, though.’ I smile wistfully, maintaining the ruse.

While the kettle murmurs, I reach for the teapot and biscuit tin; mum arranges our cups and saucers. As I wait for my tea to cool I watch her. ‘How can you drink your tea so hot? Mine’s scalding. I can barely hold the cup by its handle.’

‘I don’t know, dear. I’ve always liked it that way. Narnie is the same.’

Narnie is my grandmother. I’ve only met her twice and it’s clear she doesn’t like children. Mum sips again and takes a bite of her biscuit. ‘Here, have one.’ She offers me the tin. ‘Are you sleeping well out on the veranda?’

‘It’s the best bedroom I’ve ever had.’ I take a biscuit. ‘So much goes on at night that I didn’t know about, and the bird songs are lovely.’

‘Yes, they are, but they’re a nuisance, too, raking through my ajugas.’ She sips her tea.

‘Mum, I’ve been thinking about a Christmas tree,’ I begin.

‘Oh?’

‘You know how we’ve always had a pretend one? Well, what about a real one?’

She smiles. ‘How do you mean real, dear?’

‘Well, what if I cut the top off one of the cypresses in the hedge, and bring it inside for a Christmas tree? Just for a change?’

‘What does dad say?’

‘Haven’t asked him yet. No point if you’re not happy with it.’

‘What would you stand it up in?’

‘I’m not sure. Perhaps your copper kettle, with the firewood?’

‘That’s a bit big. What about a cream bucket from the dairy? Then you can rest your tree against the wall near the heater.’

I like the idea. ‘Okay, I’ll ask dad. So it’s okay to bring a tree in?’

‘Yes. But you can’t do it on your own, Jo.’ I don’t want to share my idea with Nick. ‘But I’ve already selected a tree and I know how to use the saw. It won’t fall on me because of all the other branches.’

‘Well. I’d be happier if Nick helps.’

I’m crest fallen but relieved, too. I suspect the job will be harder than it looks. ‘Okay,’ I concede. ‘I’ll ask dad first though, and about the bucket.’

‘Very good!’ mum chuckles. ‘You sound organised.’

I drain my cup and carry the dishes to the sink. ‘I’ll ask him at breakfast and leave Nick to his beauty sleep, now.’
‘Yes,’ mum sighs. ‘He’s not an early riser, is he?’

*****

At breakfast I put my proposal to dad.

His frown isn’t promising. ‘How much do you plan to lop off?’ he asks, pouring milk over his cereal.

I show himby extending my right arm high, and add, ‘Tall as you when you’re standing.’

‘And you say the tree is about mid-way along the hedge?’
‘Yes. I’ve marked it.’

‘How will you get it down once it’s cut?’
‘Well, mum suggested I get Nick to help. We can tie it to a rope and pull it down.’

‘mm,’ he considers. ‘That should work.’ He frowns again. ‘Still, I’d like to be there when you begin.’

When Nick appears I put the idea to him and he’s keen.

‘What’d dad say?’ he asks.

‘He wants to be there when we cut it, and bring it down with a rope. He says it’s okay, though.’ I hand him a slice of toast and place another in the rack.

‘Beauty! It’ll be good to have a real tree.’

He presses the toast with his fingertips, moulding it into the plate. ‘Better not do it every year though or we’ll run out of trees.’

*****

With a coil of
rope over my shoulder I guide Nick along the passage way up in the hedge. He hasn’t been here before and says the leaf-strewn corridor is
amazing. Upon reaching the marker I call out so that dad knows where we are.

‘Hoy!’ he calls back.

Nick remains below with the saw, while I climb up to tie the rope, just above where he is to cut. As I toss the rope towards dad, the hedge shudders. The last loop of rope catches on a branch. Dad brings it down with a toss of his boot.

‘Okay, I’ve got it,’ he calls.

I make way for Nick. He hooks the saw over his thumb, clambering up and showering me with twigs and leaves.

‘You there?’ he calls to dad.
‘Towards the clothesline,’ dad replies. ‘Yep. I can see you.’

‘Righto.’ Then Nick calls down to me. ‘Jo, you might wanna move away in case I drop the saw.’

Sawing makes the whole hedge tremble, and then there’s a crack as the trunk gives way, tilting of its own accord. Nick cuts through the last of it and pushes. It slides down, over the branches as he warns dad.

‘Got it!’

‘Yaay!’ I crow, clambering out along the corridor. Hopping down, I brush the litter from my clothes. Our tree has survived unscathed.

‘It’s a good Christmas tree,’ says dad, holding it upright. ‘Now, what’s this about a cream bucket?’

Grinning, he waves us forward, stopping briefly to rest the tip of the tree top against Husso’s kennel. We scoop gravel into the copper bucket and carry the tree between us as far as the back door. I head in and Nick follows, waddling through the kitchen. The tree clips the light and sets it bobbing maniacally. I place the bucket on the hearth and help Nick ease the trunk into place. He turns it round looking for the best side, but it stands too far out from the wall.

Mum watches from the doorway. ‘I’ll get my secateurs and you can trim the back.’

As Nick prunes I gather the clippings and we stand back to admire our work. ‘At last,’ I declare. ‘A real Christmas tree.’

‘Looks great,’ Nick agrees.

‘You’ll have to get on with the decorations,’ mum reminds us. Dad’s left the box on the dining room table. Mum worries through the contents. ‘Do be careful with these little glass ornaments, wont you?’

‘We’ll set them aside and do them last,’ says Nick.

After lunch I decorate the tree while Nick drapes paper chains and tinsel streamers across the ceiling. By afternoon teatime the room is ready, remarkably transformed from a dull green space to spangled colour. I polish the copper bucket and we drape remaining tinsel along the backboard of the chiffonier before arranging our presents there. Empty pillowcases hang either side of the sitting room fireplace and I set my letter to Santa on the mantel piece among a crowd of Christmas cards.

Our excitement builds as we await our guests. Nick rides up and down the driveway, watching for traffic while I help mum, darting to the window now and then for the first sign of Uncle Horrie’s car. It’s almost six when his pale green Zephyr eases over the cattle grid. Nick escorts them down the driveway as I race to the front door. Our uncle has driven all the way from Melbourne after a short day’s work. He
emerges relieved, and full of complaints about traffic and road works. Auntie Aileen eases herself from the passenger side, clutching her handbag.

She wheezes with asthma. ‘Not to worry,’ she assures us. ‘Just pollen and dust.’

We reach for grandad, ensuring he has his walking sticks and hat, and mum welcomes the weary travellers inside. Dad pours them tall glasses of cider as we help with the luggage. Dinner is a squeeze around the kitchen table and, when Nick and I have washed up, we join the carol singing round the piano.

‘Jo,’ Nick whispers. ‘There’s a whole stack of presents under the Christmas tree.

*****

While grandad heads for bed, I pour over a large atlas.

Dad peers down. ‘What are you looking for?’
‘Bethlehem. I want to know if it is summer in Bethlehem.’

He kneels down beside me, flicking pages over. ‘Here’s a better map of the holy land,’ he says, studying it briefly before tapping with his
finger. ‘There’s Israel and there is Bethlehem.’

Delighted, I study the map. ‘But how can you tell if it’s winter or summer?’

He grins, pleased at where this is heading. ‘You have to find the equator. Israel’s near the Mediterranean Sea, so let’s turn to a map of the world.’ He selects a rather squat-looking map of the globe.

‘Now, where’s Africa?’ he asks. With his help I locate the continent and run my finger up the coast to the equator.

I’m stunned to find it crossing the belly of the continent, much further south than I had expected. ‘That’s it, isn’t it?’ I tap a blue line excitedly.

‘Yes! You’ve found it. Now, if the Equator is there, and we know it’s summer all round the world to the south of it, and winter to the north, then what’s happening in Israel?’

‘It must be winter. The equator’s way south of there.’ ‘That’s right.’ He gives me a quick hug.

‘So it is cold in Bethlehem tonight.’
‘Mmm.’ he agrees. ‘Hardly the time of year for shepherds to wander the hills.’ I close the Atlas thoughtfully, replacing it on the shelf. My curiosity is sated, but a glimpse of Christmas cards raises more questions.

*****

I wake late on Christmas morning and Nick is already up. I dress hurriedly. Breakfast is in full swing and everyone looks refreshed.

‘Where’s Nick?’ I ask.

‘In the sitting room, seeing what Santa has brought,’ says mum.

I dart in. He’s already opened his presents and is unpacking pieces of a train set. I study the engine.

‘What a beauty.’

My pillowcase bulges with gifts. First is a bag of liquorice all-sorts. Usually I dislike them but scoff one down to ease my hunger. I unwrap a long box carefully so as not to tear the paper. Pieces of wood tumble out, a head with a button nose, painted face and a mop of hair. Puzzling
bags of metal loops, string, hands and feet all leave me rather disappointed.

‘It’s a puppet,’ Nick guesses. ‘A string puppet, like Pinocchio!’

‘Ah!’ Now the pieces make sense. I set it aside and reach for another gift. It is a nurse’s uniform with a short white veil, matching apron and a red cloak. I have already decided I want to be a nurse when I grow up and this gift is most welcome. The remaining gifts are less intriguing: socks, hankies and a necklace with a bluebird pendant. My attention returns to Nick. Before him lie a steam engine, two carriages, a guards van and an oil tanker. Like me he’s opened his liquorice allsorts, and has placed his socks and hankies in a neat pile beside the wrappings.

‘So, what did Santa bring you two?’ mum asks from the doorway. ‘I see he’s eaten both the biscuits.’

‘And drunk all the milk,’ I add.

‘What’s he left you dear?’ Mum peers at the floor beside me, pretending to be surprised. ‘Oh, it’s a marionette.’

‘A what?’ ‘A string puppet. Looks like Pinocchio, doesn’t it?’

‘I think so,’ I reply.

Last summer we saw a puppet show in Melbourne. Mum called them The Tin Tookies. I was so intrigued at how the characters mimicked
human movement.

Mum reaches down. ‘Here, let me help you sort out that tangle.’

Grandad comes in. He has already shed his coat.

‘It’s going to be a warm Christmas, Lola.’ He eases back into his favourite chair and rests his walking stick against the cupboards. ‘Now, what
have you two been up to?’

Nick hands him a piece of his train-set. ‘Aren’t they beauties, grandad?’

‘They certainly are,’ he agrees, turning the engine over and admiring its detail. ‘They even have doors that open and close.’

‘There’s just one problem, though,’ says Nick.

‘And what would that be?’

‘There are no tracks for it run on.’

‘Oh. Yes, I see.’ Grandad scans the floor looking quite concerned. ‘Must have been a clerical error. Perhaps Santa was so busy getting things ready that he missed them. Don’t worry, Nick. I’m sure he’ll sort it out.’ His gives us knowing smile.

Mum helps me assemble the puppet, finally holding the crosspiece aloft. Pinocchio hangs suspended by a string from the top of his back. Two
other strings hold the sides of his head.

They puzzle me. ‘What are these for, mum?’

‘To turn his head from side to side, I think.’

‘Ah. Of course.’ I take hold of the control piece. It is difficult to co-ordinate and the puppet folds to the floor. Lifting him again, I move his feet, one at a time, and then his hands. Finally he takes a few faltering steps.

The others arrive. ‘I’ll be Santa,’ dad announces, his arms laden with gifts. He reads the first tag aloud in a Santery voice. ‘To dear Joanna with all our love from mum and dad.’

As I reach for the present it sinks in my arms, so heavy.

He reads the next. ‘To dear Nicholas with much love from mum and dad.’
As I ease sticky tape from the paper, Nick gives a hoot of delight. ‘Train tracks!’ I glance at grandad, and really begin to wonder about Santa Claus. I’ve unwrapped two beautiful story books. There is a jaunty little girl with her dog on the cover of The Wizard of Oz. I open the book carefully and inhale its smell. Beautiful illustrations are scattered throughout the text, some most intriguing. Pinocchio is my second book and there is a picture of him on the cover. While the text is still well beyond me, I am absolutely thrilled with them and leap to my feet, throwing my arms around mum and then dad with such joy they are clearly moved.

‘Now, you two,’ mum reminds us. ‘It’s time to get ready for church.’ Nick and I groan in unison. We collect our wrappings and carry the
bounty to our tents.

*****

We are not the last to arrive for the Christmas Day service. While the organist plays an arrangement of Christmas carols, I sit enthralled by the beautifully decorated tree standing near the chancel. There is a pile of gifts at its feet for the children who don’t have the nice homes like us. Looking round I spy some of my school friends and wave quickly as the organ music swells, announcing the beginning of the service.
After the second hymn, the minister begins his Christmas sermon. I listen attentively while my gaze wanders the walls, pausing to admire the iridescent, tall, stained-glass windows, and the arches that stretch far above to the ceiling. After the next hymn there is a prize giving. At my turn I hurry forward, accepting a book from my Sunday school teacher. I scuttle back to my seat holding an illustrated version of Heidi. Inside the cover is a sticker with my name and class written on it. After church we play in the shady grounds. The grownups gather to share news, the men stirring gravel beneath their feet. I can see grandad needs to sit down and I walk with him to our car, parked in the deep shade of a row of leafy elms.

*****

At two o’clock we gather around the dining room table. Nick and I carry have carried in the last of the serving dishes. Although the day is hot, we have a traditional meal of crisp, roasted vegetables, sweet garden peas, chicken, ham, gravy and sauces. Dad pours sparkling cider for everyone while Nick places the angel chimes in the centre of the table. We are hushed, watching as he lights the four candles with a taper. Heat rises from the flames, turning a carousel from which four angels hang. As they fly round, each takes a turn striking tiny bells that make an exquisite tinkling sound.

After saying grace, dad takes up a regal knife and fork and begins to carve the meat, passing plates around to where mum serves vegetables. Mine has two crispy chicken wings and a slither of ham glazed in gravy. As I nibble the bones, I watch the chimes spinning round and round, and wonder what it feels like to be driven and unable to stop. For a moment the tinkling assumes a menacing quality. I break the dark thought. ‘Mum, why do we call tomorrow Boxing Day?’

‘It’s when everyone tidies up and puts everything away in boxes after Christmas.’

‘Oh.’ I’m disappointed, expecting it meant more. There is Christmas pudding for dessert, with preserved apricots and a delicious, creamy custard that mum calls angel’s food. It tastes so delicate and smooth that I have no reason to doubt its name at all. We complete the feast with nuts and dried fruit, and pull bonbons. Later, with the table cleared and the candles extinguished, it’s time for dad to play Santa
again. Soon the room is filled with festive wrappings and chatter. Nick and I excuse ourselves to start the mammoth wash up. Our aunt
and uncle come to help, filling the kitchen table with china, silver ware and cooking utensils. Mum lies down for her snooze and soon we all find somewhere to relax. Suddenly a most beautiful sound fills the house, much like the pipe organ from church. But this is no hymn.

Draping my puppet over a chair, I dart into the sitting room. The sound confronts me like a wave, its fullness washing over me, passing through me, with a tinkling sweetness that fills the room with shards of sound. There is a new record cover on the radiogram with an inscription in mum’s handwriting. On the front is a detailed photograph of a pipe organ, with the words Bach, Preludes and Fugues. I peer over at dad. He sits inert, eyes closed, with an ecstatic expression on his
face.

Yes, dad. This is the kind of gravity we both understand.

I ease myself to the floor and lie back, floating with the music. Majestic chords build massive shapes of sound that transform from ocean waves to complex architecture. The melody thins, twining now and rising, and I imagine intricate gothic cathedrals filled with celebration. This Bach speaks my language, and his fugue watermarks the underside of my skin.

CANING NUMBERS

Mt Noorat

Mt Noorat

Caning Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arithmetic is next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We resume the journey in silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUMMER

Summer Storm

Summer Storm

SUMMER

Our aunt and uncle return to Melbourne early in the new year, leaving grandad with us until winter. Their departure eases tension in the house and our days settle, and Summer heat draws us into the garden. While there is a public swimming pool in Terang, we prefer our own, set up beneath the coral tree, surrounded by a carpet of scarlet blossoms. Although only two yards square, the pool provides ample room for our play. Its coarse, green canvas walls have the same damp smell as aged hay.

The sandpit has been replenished and a swing installed nearby. With acres of farm, our playground is a paradise. Grandad sits in his cane chair reading a newspaper, peering over the pages to referee when needed. He has a knack for predicting squabbles, and steers them back to the realms of play and laughter. Temperatures soar and even mum dons her bathing costume and joins us, shrieking and laughing beneath the garden hose.

Only dad remains in the background, his lean weathered limbs folded, angular like his deck chair. He says little and smiling absently at our antics, his eyes are distant and his mind elsewhere. After lunch grandad removes his tie and vest and rolls up his shirtsleeves. At almost ninety he has shunned short trousers, never wearing them since leaving school. Such affectations are for boys, not men, he assures me.

Neither grandad nor I are distressed by the oppressive weather. He has a quiet, steady way of resisting the heat. However, my resilience is puzzling: the hotter the day, the more animated I feel, much like a lizard out in summer sun. Everyone else gathers indoors on sweltering days, sprawled and motionless before the single oscillating fan, while I bound with the exuberance of a blowfly.

Mercifully, a sea breeze reaches the farm by mid afternoon. It has crossed miles of crisp pasture and bushland, yet still offers relief. Curtains and windows are opened, and the house becomes a shady retreat. Grown ups relax with tinkling drinks. They set up a picnic table on the front veranda, and serve summer salads with crusty bread, cream and home-made jam. The stove remains idle till morning.

Evenings are blessedly long, dusk stretching to well after nine. Bats flit and careen around darkening trees, and the crickets’ trill resonates inside our heads. Eyelids grow heavy with sleep. As my brother and I remain encamped on the side veranda, it is a short journey to our beds.

After several days of intense heat, mugginess surrenders to the north wind. Blustering in from parched deserts, the dry heat draws moisture from every surface. Windows, doors and blinds are closed, yet the heat remains stifling, snaking beneath doors and sucking its own breath from chimneys. Turbulent gusts surge through the trees and into the open mouths of sheds. In full shade hydrangeas wilt, roses and lavender droop, and green, fleshy vegetable leaves simper in a haze of evaporation.

The wind drops at sunset, leaving a residual heat that radiates from the earth, walls and paving. Night hangs over us like a stifling blanket. Cool showers and drinks offer temporary relief. Curtains hang becalmed at gaping windows, and bodies toss, restless in scant cotton. Above, the deep sky taunts and beckons. A brief reprieve creeps through tousled dreams at dawn, before the first rays of morning cross parched stubble paddocks, paling as I watch from my perch on the big gate.

The fist flushes of north wind send shade scuttling, and exhausted bodies rise. Cattle seek shelter beneath hedgerows and cypresses, their ears and tails twitching at flies. Tepid, wind-rankled water is framed by mud paving, crazed into fragments by the wind.

There is little to do around the farm on such days. The milk herd has dwindled, most cows saving nourishment for their unborn calves. We check them regularly, and flush their troughs with fresh water. Mitzi, our house pony, slumps, motionless beneath the pine tree, too tired to forage. She awaits lush trimmings tossed over the vegetable garden fence this evening. While chooks perch in their shed, Husso, the border collie, has deserted his kennel, dozing fitfully in a bed of cool nasturtiums, beneath a tank stand.

Even flies are stilled by the heat, feasting on orchard windfalls. Crops of nectarines, plums and apricots ripen. Plump apples and pears feed voracious grubs. Blackbirds forage among the raspberry canes.

By the third day, the north wind increases to a gale, and vacuums bare earth into a skyward haze. Heavy clouds appear on the western horizon, like bunches of purple grapes glazed by a silver bloom of intense sunlight. They swell as the day wearies, rising like a battalion of towering anvils. By mid afternoon, swelled, bruised and menacing, they draw a shale canopy towards the sun. The wind drops and the air becomes sweet and heavy with the approaching storm. Distant lightning arcs as the billowing mass extinguishes the relentless sun.

Now the air vibrates and its energy is exhilarating. I stand on the veranda steps, my eyes wide, anticipating a spectacle of theatrical proportions. A surge of moist sea air roars like surf through the elm trees, and speckles my cheeks with rain. From the back yard I hear the windmill tiller surge and fan blades shudder. The barometer needle plunges, jumping even further with a tap from dad’s finger.
‘Mmm,’ he says, giving a sniff of satisfaction.

Rumbles of thunder reverberate through the house, setting Nick and I dancing with excitement. Even the grown-ups are revived by the thought of rain. There is a hint of smoke, aromatic and comforting.
‘Probably spot fires in the reserve,’ says grandad. ‘This storm will put them out.’
‘Not before they’ve traveled,’ says dad.

Two magpies are caught in a gust of wind. They hurtle out of a pine tree by the road side, shrieking and flapping their way back, seeking advantage in the ebb and flow of the squall. Finally they surrender, gliding back over us to the big cypress, squawking as they find purchase among flailing branches.

There is an eerie stillness, now. The seconds tick by, fattened by our expectation. A bolt of lightning is a mere formality. The blinding flash arcs above us, unleashing an instantaneous blast that concusses walls and clutter. Thunder rattles, clotting like cannon fire, punching the sullen blackness. Before we can think, a second flash detonates, sending a tympani of rattles ripping through the air so palpably that we scurry for safety.
‘Ooh, that was close,’ says dad, impressed by the volley.
I cling to grandad’s chair, terrified.
Even Nick is shaken. ‘It sounded like it hit the house!
‘No,’ says grandad, his voice timed and gentle. ‘If it had, you wouldn’t have heard thunder like that, just a big bang.’
The adults laugh, but there is a nervous edge in their voices.
‘How do you know?’ Nick challenges.
‘Well,’ grandad continues. ‘There was a pause after those flashes, and each second translates into hundreds of feet away from us.’
‘Mmm,’ dad agrees. ‘Storms frightened me as a boy, so grandad taught me to count the seconds between a bolt of lightning and thunder. Five seconds means a mile, doesn’t it?’
Grandad nods, smiling at the memory of many storms and summers.

‘Let’s count the next one, then,’ mum suggests.
But she speaks too late. A flash of pink-white forks between her words into the trees on the other side of the road.
‘Whoa!’ declares Nick. ‘That was close, dad!’
I think so, too. ‘I saw it hit the trees behind Fahey’s place!’
‘Okay,’ mum urges. ‘Quiet and let’s concentrate on the next one.’
We all wait, our eyes straining to see everywhere at once, words ready at shutter speed. With the next flash we chant each second.
‘Seven,’ exclaims Nick as thunder grumbles. The sound expands, washing over us. Crack! Another bolt dashes a clump of box thorn in a distant paddock. We count again. ‘Eight.’ And fresh laughter. The next flash highlights a line of pines snaking up the slope to Lake Keilembete. We count under our breath.
‘Five!’ As a volley of rattles rips the brooding sky.

The storm has passed beyond our house, and drops of rain strike the iron roof. Some land on the edge of the veranda, and break into tiny beads. Others leave damp circles the size of pennies on the cement steps. Stillness follows.
‘Surely that’s not all?’ Mum declares.
‘Can’t be,’ dad agrees.
We study the silence and the marble clouds rolling over us. Then sounds of gravel thrown on tin draw our eyes upward to the roof. Hailstones. Some skitter along the steps, leaving berries of ice squatting in a pool of their own juice. More of them spit onto the gravel and one or two slash at hydrangea leaves. Then the wind returns, cool with the fullness of the storm, driving sheets of hail forward and making the veranda untenable. We move indoors, our voices of barely audible beneath the din.

As windows are closed, lightning and thunder resume, a backdrop to the fury of wind and rain. The heatwave is over, and every surface thirsts for moisture. The deluge creates rivulets from garden beds that spill into deltas on the driveway. Gutterings overflow, and wind sprays rain at my bedroom window, leaving a web of water-droplets on the fly wire. The temperature plummets.

After our evening meal we return to the veranda. The turbulence has passed, the disarmed sun resting below crisp clouds, all pink and orange, tinting the garden with unnatural light. There is a distinct tang hovering in the air that reminds me of fresh, sun-dried washing, straight from the clothesline.

An occasional puff of wind sends showers from the trees.
‘I hope you two will be okay out here tonight.’ Mum gets up from her chair and walks round to inspect our camp, concerned by the dampness and a possible chill.
‘It’s dry, mum,’ Nick assures her.
We follow behind.
‘It seems cool now because it’s been so hot.’ I add. ‘Remember the cool evenings before Christmas? I had to fill my hot-water bottle then. That’s cooler than now.’
‘Mmm.’ Mum runs her hands along Nick’s tent wall, not entirely convinced. ‘It feels dry.’
‘And look, mum.’ I beckon her over. ‘The wall here is still warm. Feel it.’ Rough conite radiates warmth against my hand.
‘Well. All right.’ She is convinced for now. ‘But if there’s another storm I want you two inside. And if the weather stays cool over the next few days, you’re to move back indoors and dismantle your tents.’
‘But mum!’ I whine in dismay. ‘It’s still the holidays.’ We have been out here for three weeks and it feels like forever: my room dull and silent comparison.
‘You have to come in sometime, Jo. You can’t stay out here for ever.’
‘We know that,’ says Nick. ‘But for now, for the holidays there’s no harm, as long as the nights are mild.’ He knows how to reassure her.
‘And, who knows,’ I persist. ‘There might more hot weather. After all, it’s only January.’
‘True,’ mum agrees, reaching to smooth my pillow. ‘All right then. Let’s see how it goes.’
I cheer and hug her arm, silently hoping for a heatwave till holiday’s end, whenever that was.

* * *

The next week is mild and bright. We carry toy boats to sail on the troughs, and sticks for prodding mouse burrows, for waving about as swords and for poking each other. But, most importantly, they are ideal for testing the electric fence.

Each year dad grows crops in one of the larger paddocks, a blend of rape and turnips. It serves as summer feed for the cattle. After sowing in spring, we watch the field take on a smoky-green hue typical of the Brassica family. The rich volcanic soil requires no irrigation, although there is another bore for that purpose. Seasonal rain keeps the crop lush. After harvest the hay, we open the crop for grazing, later this year due to late spring rains.

Cows gather about us along the fence as dad opens the gate. They sniff the lushness beyond. Yesterday, we had helped dad set up the electric fence, unreeling bare wire and fixing it to a line of poles, each pressed firmly into the ground. At the far side of the paddock is a yellow metal box, holding a battery to power the fence.

Husso strains forward, keen to drive the sluggish herd through the gate. After ten months of sweet rye and clover pasture, this new feed has a pungent odour. The first cow steps forward, regarding dad warily. Her ears are pulled forward and she lowers her head, sniffing and licking her muzzle. A she steps further, others nudge. A few more steps and they follow, streaming in, feeding greedily as they walk.

The electric fence must be moved each morning in order to provide a fresh strip for grazing. At one side, dad disconnects the battery, and pulls the first pole from the soil. He paces ten yards into the fresh crop before pressing it back into the ground. While he relocates the battery, we unhook and move the remaining poles across the field, lining them up with the first. Clouds of white cabbage moths flutter into the air, settling in our wake. Dad lifts the wire at the other side of the paddock and we drag it over the crop, affixing it to each pole. Then dad reels in the slack.

Now it’s our task to wade through the sea of leaves and test the fence. This is where our sticks come in handy. With the battery reconnected, dad signals and we take turns at resting our sticks on the wire, the shock kicking up our arm. If there is no power, we walk the length of the fence, snapping off any leaves that may earth the circuit. An encore test confirms the fence is working. It’s not a pleasant chore, but it offers a game of daring and courage. With the cattle grazing, we head back to the house for morning tea.

Husso drinks thirstily from his water dish on the veranda, while we quench ours with glasses of cold milk, munching on sweet biscuits, with feet swinging beneath our chairs. Grandad heads for the side veranda for his morning nap. Each of us has preferred tasks. Today Nick plans to start on a new tunnel in the haystack and has invited me to help him.

‘Oi!’ Mum calls. ‘Before you two disappear for the day, how about taking down the decorations in the dining room. After all, it is January.’
Her request isn’t popular.
‘Can’t we leave till a rainy day?’ Nick pleads.
‘You could just as easily leave your tunnel for a rainy day. Besides, the tree is dead and dropping leaves all over the floor.’ Husso slumps onto the veranda as we shuffle back inside, collecting a ladder, broom, dustpan and brush on our way. Two hours later we reappearing, carrying the balding tree to the bonfire pile in the horse paddock.

* * *

Mum says grandad named our farm Rostrevor after a place in Ireland. She has more details and I listen intently.
‘He’s lived here since the land was first opened to settlers more than seventy ago.’
Following his lead, dad maintains a fine orchard and vegetable garden, providing fresh food for our table. Until now, I have taken this abundance for granted, not recognising a privilege many do not enjoy.

I help mum with the shopping. At the grocers I watch as a woman buys eggs, fruit and vegetables, and it gets me thinking. Once out of earshot, I ask mum, ‘Why did that lady buy eggs and lemons when they have them at home?’
‘Some people don’t have chooks and lemons trees.’
‘Why?’ I persist, struggling to the car with a heavy raffia bag.
‘Perhaps they have no room in their garden.’
‘But chooks don’t take up that much room.’
‘True.’ Mum eases her basket onto the backseat. ‘Perhaps they don’t know how, or can’t be bothered.’
‘But they pay for those squashy lemons and tiny eggs when they could grow them for free.’ I hand mum my bag. And something else is puzzles me. ‘How come we don’t grow oranges and onions, then?’
‘We have an orange tree in the front garden, near the birdbath. But oranges don’t grow well here. The fruit doesn’t seem to ripen. As for onions, dad doesn’t have enough room. I’ve been at him to make the vegie garden bigger, but he says he’s too busy with the farm to grow more vegetables.’
‘Is that why we don’t grow potatoes?’
‘Probably, though they’re cheap and easy to buy from farmers.’
While this makes sense, it occurs to me. ‘Why don’t we have our own meat then?’
‘Our cows are for milking, not eating. Sometimes we butcher a chook for Christmas.’

Mum settles me into the seat. ‘Just think how lucky we are to have all these wonderful things growing at home. And if other people miss picking their own cherries then it’s their choice.’

The conversation entices me to explore the garden I love, reveling in the bounty of its harvest, the freshness, variety and flavour of each meal. From summer to autumn, mulberries and raspberries come straight to our plates, needing only a dollop of cream and a sprinkle of castor sugar. We munch apricots and plums between meals, and every journey through the orchard or vegetable garden provides a snack.

After autumn harvest, when most leaves have fallen, we help dad carry orchard prunings to the bonfire pile, taking turns for a bumpy wheelbarrow ride back to the garden. From late winter I visit the asparagus beds, waiting for the first tender spears to emerge from the dark soil. Cherry blossoms transform dormant twigs in the front garden and the apricot tree follows. Almost overnight swathes of blossoms fill the orchard, branches dancing to the hum and flurry of bees.

Heavy fragrance permeates the air from a solitary lemon tree, its branches speckled with flowers and drooping under a crop of fruit. We squeeze the lemons for cordial, scrape the zest for baking and desserts, and squeeze wedges over fresh fish.

Even in the depths of winter, the harvests of summer and autumn grace kitchen shelves. The labour of hot afternoons, the picking, peeling and cutting, fill preserving and jam jars. Apples line dark shelves in the workshop and providing stock well into spring. Their ripe musk lingers, drowning mechanical odours, and their oily skins wrinkle as the year draws on. Parsnips, carrots and leafy greens provide supply fresh from the garden.

One still, spring afternoon we scuttle from the garden while dad dons a red haversack and sprays orchard trees and vegetables for grubs. Already longer days entice asparagus to our table, steaming beneath lashings of butter. Early beans and tomatoes are staked, and shoots of summer mint stipple soil in a rusty half-drum. Parsley grows in unruly clumps and chive-spikes grow with military precision. Radishes lie washed on the kitchen sink beside cabbage and silver beet. Well before Christmas the lettuce is ready for harvest, and dad prepares pickled beetroot.

In anticipation of salads, mum makes tangy mayonnaise. Gone are winter casseroles of beef and lamb. Slivers of corned beef, ham, pork and lamb are arranged on fading red dinner plates. Slices of aromatic tomatoes, crimson radish and grated carrot decorate lacy salads. Hard-boiled eggs and sticks of cheese added substance to our feasting while mustard, horseradish, chutney and pickles challenge beetroot with tang, colour and bouquet.

By mid-summer, apricots and nectarines firm, gripping their branches in hot northerlies. Hoses soak the acre of lawn, flick-flicking until dusk, refreshing exhausted grapevines, wilting violets and thirsty hydrangeas.

As apples fatten, windfalls are gifted to Mitzi as a juicy treat. Granny Smith is first to the table, then golden delicious and Jonathans. Finally my favourite apple ripens on a single tree between asparagus beds. I hoard the windfalls and covet the ripening harvest. Rosy skin belies snow-white, perfect flesh. The pear tree branches strain beneath ripening fruit. Eager hands lighten the load several times a day, biting through green marbled skin and leaving only the stem and seeds, tossed in unruly summer grass. No wonder we are never hungry at mealtimes.

We emerge from raspberry picking, scratched and tired, rosy lips and stained fingers, and with little to show for our efforts. Mum accepts our paltry offerings and sends us back for more, as she does to the mulberry tree.
‘You’ve been eating them,’ she accuses.
I’m quick to defence, popping another berry into my mouth. ‘They’re too squishy for the table.’
‘Well, you must be more gentle picking them,’ and she demonstrates how to twist and pull.
‘What’s the point of picking them when we’ll eat them in a few hours, anyway?’
‘Well, think of your father for a start,’ says mum. ‘Doesn’t he deserve some? And what about the pots of jam we need for winter?’
Chastened, we return to work.

Harvesting peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines is left entirely to Nick and me. We strip the trees in several weeks, picking the fruit as it ripens, reaching uppermost branches on ladders to collect fruit in wicker baskets slung over our arms. Mum preserves the harvest in batches every few days until the pantry quakes beneath the heavy jars. Tomatoes join them in autumn, supplying our needs until the next harvest.

Turnips are the only vegetable we dislike.
‘We have to walk through acres of them every day,’ Nick whines, prodding the stuff on his plate.
‘And they taste so strong,’ I add. ‘They remind me of the crop and the taste the milk gets.’
Ignoring me, mum spoons a pat of mash onto my plate. ‘Most of the cows are dry by now, dear. Dad is hand-milking them now.’
Unimpressed, we scowl at our plates. Across the table, grandad takes his serviette and wipes his mouth, unsuccessfully hiding a smile.
‘Turnips are good for you,’ he manages, finally. And we have no reason to doubt this fact.
‘They’re even better for chooks,’ says Nick, cheekily.

Future servings are disguised with a blend of mashed carrots and we clean our plates, unaware of the deception. But, the house is divided over tripe. I spot it lying on a plate by the sink, just before dinner. It looks like a piece of sponge.
‘What’s that, mum?’
‘Tripe.’
‘What’s tripe? Is it a vegetable?’
‘No, dear. It’s meat. It comes from a sheep’s stomach.’
‘Ugh! Looks disgusting. Is that what my tummy looks like?’
‘Pretty much.’

Mum and Nick like tripe served with glossy parsley sauce. I nibble at the piece on my fork but can’t bear to put it in my mouth. Dad doesn’t help.
‘It’s works,’ he says.
‘What’s works?’ I ask.
‘Any part of an animal that’s not meat,’ says grandad. ‘Like kidneys and liver.’
‘Don’t you like liver, grandad?’
He shakes his head. ‘Not very much.’
‘Dad says he won’t touch works,’ mum explains, her voice toneless. ‘It’s his mother’s fault. She said it was offal and wouldn’t serve it at the table.’ Her criticism treads on dangerous ground.
‘But you eat lamb’s fry and bacon, dad. I’ve seen you.’ I weighing in, my fork waving in the air. ‘And grandad, too!’
Yes,’ dad admits. ‘But only when it’s smothered in gravy and bacon so I can’t see or taste it.’
Mum shakes her head and her face reddens. She rams peas on her fork.
‘Same for brains and bacon,’ he adds.
‘Merlin!’ Mum cuts him short. ‘That’s enough.’
He shrugs in apology.

The meal continues in silence. Grandad has to wipe his mouth thoroughly with his serviette.
I time my next question carefully. ‘Can we try brains, mum?’ I ask, politely.
‘We’ll see.’
‘Dad?’ Now Nick is curious. ‘Why don’t we butcher our own meat like the neighbours do?’
‘We haven’t a freezer, and we don’t run vealers.’
‘Did you ever butcher meat, grandad?’ I ask.
‘Occasionally. When Granny Clarke was alive.’
Dad nods, remembering. ‘Usually steers. We’d share the meat with our family out at Garvoc.’
‘With my brothers and sons’, grandad explains. ‘Your uncles, and Aileen.’
‘Dairy farmers don’t usually slaughter cattle,’ dad adds.

There’s something else I’ve wondered. ‘Have you ever had sheep on the farm, dad?’
‘No.’ He replies adamantly.
‘Why?’
‘They ruin perfectly good pasture. I’m not having sheep here.’
Grandad nods in agreement. Their conviction surprises me and I leave the subject hanging.
‘We eat our own chooks, though,’ dad reminds me. ‘At Christmas time.’
‘And rabbit in casseroles,’ says mum.
‘But only when they’re not baited,’ says dad, who doesn’t approve of rabbit.

We eat in silence again, all lost in thought. I push the tripe to one side and eat my vegetables hungrily. ‘Have we always had a vegie garden, dad?’
‘Yes. Grandad taught me that.’
‘And the orchard?’
‘Yes. That, too. He and my mother planted it.’
‘Did you make the farm, grandad?’ asks Nick.
‘Yes, I bought the land after sub-division; fenced it off and built this house.’
‘This is still grandad’s home in a sense,’ mum says, looking at him with genuine affection.
‘Yes, that’s right,’ he confirms. ‘I enjoy living in Melbourne but this is where my heart belongs. And I miss you two bundles of mischief,’ he adds, smiling at each of us in turn.

Grandad wanders into the sitting room to read the newspaper and have a snooze, stiffly easing himself into his worn rocking chair. It is by far the most elegant piece in the house, shipped to Australia from his father’s birthplace in Devon. He rests his walking sticks against the cupboard and reaches across to the bench top for his newspaper. Beside him the cupboard stores photograph albums spanning four generations of our family, from delicate sepia to Kodachrome. There’s a slide projector, too, with boxes of slides. And a collection of indoor games: bobs, skittles, draughts, monopoly and playing cards. A basket, carved from coconut shell, stores six sets of coloured marbles and matching quandongs. We use these as counters for Chinese checkers.

Above the cupboard the shelves are filled with books. A few faded volumes of poetry are bound in embossed leather, with gilt pages, and inscribed by his parents, friends and family. Alongside the Pears Cyclopaedia stand a few homeopathic volumes, including the one I loathe. A King James Bible is sandwiched between dad’s reference books, many in worn dust jackets with rough cut pages. Recent publications on philosophy, plant and bird identification, astronomy and even herd improvement bear evidence to his personal path to understanding. Other than a few compilations of Dickens and Edwardian classics, there are no novels.

Mum prefers literary works and keeps these shelved by her chair on the other side of the fireplace. I have explored her craft and women’s magazines and some large picture books, one about the coronation of the queen. Between her chair and the shelves sits a large copper kettle, used to store firewood. Granny Clarke once used it for cooking. It is family piece mum has garnered during her struggle for a foothold here, in dad’s family home.

At first, grandad snoozes peacefully. But he is often stirred by the gentle rocking of his chair, strange considering the chair has no such device. Then the pages of his newspaper, fallen upon his lap, begin to jump as if in spasm. Finally the space beneath his chair fills with impish, half-stifled giggles.
‘What’s this mischief?’ he calls, still half asleep.
At this the chair rocks more violently, forcing him to grip the armrests and plant his feet firmly on the floor.
‘Enough!’ he commands. Obediently the disturbance ceases, but for a few giggles. He sits back waiting for more. Something hooks his ankle and gently drags his foot beneath the chair. When he resists the pulling ceases only to resume in a few seconds. He notices a walking stick is missing.

There is movement at his back where gaps in the chair permit room for little fingers to prod and poke. Then there is a crawling sensation up the back of his neck and into his thinning, silvery hair. His hand darts to catch the offender but he’s too slow, and snorts of mirth and giggles explode from behind the chair.

At last I poke my head up over the armrest where he can see me.
‘It’s you, little imp!’ he declares, grinning at my tear-stained face, so reddened with unspent giggles. He folds his paper and returns it to the bench, smiling an invitation for me to climb on his lap. Snuggling warmly against his coat, it is not long till temptation builds again. I pull at a gold chain disappearing into his waistcoat pocket and withdraw a gold watch, peering up at him for permission to open it.
I calculate the time. ‘The little hand is after three and the big hand is on the nine.’
‘So what time does that make it?’
‘A quarter before four!’
‘A quarter to four,’ he corrects with a broad smile.
I close the watch carefully and return it. ‘So, it must be afternoon tea time!’
‘I suppose you’re right, little mischief!’

I climb down and help him retrieve his walking stick from behind the chair. He eases up and I slip onto the chair behind him. My legs are too short to reach the footrest so I rock by leaning forwards and backwards as I do on the swing.
‘Grandad? Would you give me a little push, please.’
Steadying, he takes a few steps and pulls the chair gently.
‘I wish I had a chair like this one, grandad. It is most wonderful.’
‘Don’t worry, mischief. One day you will have one exactly like this.’
‘How?’
‘Time brings many things to those who wait.’

I frown, unsure what he means. He often talks in riddles.

* * *

Walking through dad’s office to the veranda door, Nick pauses at the desk. Unusually, the bureau lid lies open, papers scattered upon it, as if dad left suddenly. At the back of the compartment he spots a curious brass cylinder, not unlike the ship’s telescopes we’ve discovered. He picks it up, surprised at its weight. The top and bottom of the cylinder are sealed by thick glass lenses. Placing the instrument down, he notices how it magnifies his father’s handwriting. The temptation is too much and he smuggles the glass out to his bed on the veranda.

The lenses are removable and he unscrews one of them. It bulges convexly. He studies the hairs and pores of his hand, never imagining their detail.
‘Watch ya got?’ I startle him. He attempts to hide the glass, but I’ve been watching through the tent opening.
‘A magnifying glass,’ he replies disdainfully. ‘Bugger off!’
I wait, silent, until he resumes his study.
‘May I have a look through that other bit?’ I ask.
Recognising the opportunity for peace, he agrees, and hands me the cylinder.
‘Crikey, it’s heavy!’
‘Yeah, I know. So don’t bust it. Dad doesn’t know we’ve got it!’
I study my skin and fingernails. The details are not pretty. My tender fingertips resemble crusty oyster shell. I examine the fibres of my clothes, intrigued by their knobbly filaments.
‘Nick! Look at your shorts under this thing.’ He doesn’t reply.
‘Nick?’ I peer over the chest of drawers. He’s gone.

I tuck the glass under my pillow and leapt off the veranda. Perhaps he’s sneaked round the front. That’d be why I didn’t hear him. I follow the driveway but there’s no sign of him: the paddock is empty. Perhaps the orchard? I cross the lawn to the archway, straining my ears for clues to his whereabouts. I spot him crouched by the wattle tree, with his back to me. Drawing closer I can smell burning leaves and there’s a fine plume of smoke rising over his shoulder. He’s so intent he barely acknowledges me.

I kneel down to watch.
‘Get outa m’way,’ he snaps. ‘You’re blocking the sun!’
I’m used to his impatience and sit back to allow his anger to dissipate. He’s holding the lens so the sun shines through it, and I want to see more. Beneath the glass, a fine circle of brilliant light focuses on a wattle leaf, now visibly smouldering.
‘Wow,’ I breathe. ‘You’ve made fire.’
‘Hmm,’ he replies.
‘Where’d you learn that?’
‘From a How and Why book I got for Christmas.’
I’d seen them, slim sciencey-looking volumes with pictures of prisms, planets and volcanoes.

He claws some dry grass and places it on the smouldering leaf and we hear the magic crackle, as flame engulfs the scant pile. As he reaches for more fuel, I help him, gathering grass, twigs, anything within reach. Soon we have a real fire going and scrounge for more twigs. I lean against the tree, watching, and remember. Once, when we were playing with flames and coals in the sitting-room fireplace, mum caught us. She was so angry she held my hand in the flame for a few seconds. I was terrified, and took off, retreating into my bedroom, howling. I couldn’t understand why she’d done it. Later, when she found me wedged between the wardrobe and the wall, she tried to explain.
‘I had to do it, dear,’ she began.
‘Rubbish!’ I screamed, stamping my foot.
‘How else can I teach you the danger of fire? It ruins homes and people’s lives.’
‘I know that. I’m not stupid,’ I snap. ‘That’s why we were playing in the fireplace, for God’s sake!’ I was angry and defiant. ‘Dad has taught us about fire so we can help him burn off. I even burned my hand picking up a stick with embers on it? You bandaged it, remember? I know what fire can do!’
‘Perhaps you don’t realise how fire can get away on you.’
‘We hear about it every summer, mum. Why do you think we were using the fireplace? You could’ve hurt me doing that!’ I punch at the air with my wounded hand.
‘It was only a few seconds. It didn’t really burn you, did it?’
She reaches, but I snatch my hand away. ‘How was I to know that?’
‘Because you know I wouldn’t do anything to harm you.’
‘Really?’ I sneer, knowing otherwise. ‘Well, you’ve made your point. So leave me alone!’
Mum waits.
I stamp my foot at her. ‘Go! Leave me a-bloody-lone!’
She did.

It saddens me, remembering how painfully mum deals with us. It’s hard enough being a mum, I suppose, but she didn’t learn that from teaching training. Leaving Nick, I return to the veranda. I must have drifted off to sleep.
Nick howls at me from the orchard. ‘Get over here. Help me!’ He sounds desperate.
I sit up, dazed.
‘Quick. The fire’s got away. It’s in the rock garden.’
I fly off the veranda. Feeding the garden hose over the hedge, I open the tap and run in to help him. Smoke billows up from the blaze but the flames do not have a good hold yet, and Nick manages to extinguish them quickly. Then he douses the original fire to ensure all the embers are soaked.

I curl up my nose. The wet cinders stink. ‘Whew! That was close.’
‘Yeah. Just turned my back and it was away. A gust of wind must have carried a spark, see.’ There’s no trail to the rockery.
‘Dad won’t be impressed.’
‘I know that. But we can show him we put it out.’
‘Fair enough,’ I agree, accepting my share. ‘He’ll be angry though.’ I reach for a stick and scribble the evidence into surrounding leaves and grass, and then Nick washes it in. Though the scorch is barely visible, now, we can’t disguise the smell.
‘At least he’ll only yell once,’ I counsel. ‘He’ll be worried as well as angry.’

By some miracle, dad fails to notice the smell that afternoon but, the next day he discovers the damage. Questions are asked but the sting of his anger is soothed by the outcome. His only concern is Nick’s negligence.
‘Talk about a stupid thing to do. You’re very lucky it didn’t get further away. Could’ve lost a haystack or even the house.’
‘I know that, dad. More so, now.’ Nick’s remorse is genuine and even mum goes easy on us.
‘I think they’ve had enough of a fright, Merlin. You won’t try that stunt again, will you Nick?

We were frightened, but the incident does little to dampen our curiosity about fire.

HARVEST

Husso

HARVEST

Birdsong resonates through the orchard and across the lawn, signalling dawn long before daylight reaches my bedroom. I stretch under the sheets and turn on my side to gaze at the window. A morning breeze pushes the blind.  Reedy breath hums through the curtains, and exhales, the blind clattering back, its ring-pull tapping the wall below the window sill.

I ease myself up and lean back against the iron bed head. My arms ache. As I rub them the skin smarts, tender and warm. Then I remember: sunburn. I swing my feet to the floor and stretch in search of discarded jeans, t-shirt and socks. Brush and braid my sun-bleached hair. Scratches prickle my shins and forearms, and my finger tips are tender from grasping. I reach for a red paisley scarf and tie it bandana-style around my inflamed neck.

Down in the kitchen, I cram a whole biscuit into my mouth and slip another into the pocket of my jeans. There are few coals left to stir in the firebox. I add crumpled newspaper and kindling, watching as the match flame wavers, curls round the tinder and takes hold. I add wood from an alcove, pieces I cut and stacked only days ago, and the fire begins to crackle.

At the fridge I pour milk and drinking it thirstily in one long gulp, eying the clock over the rim of the glass. Just after five. I slide the kettle onto the hotplate and slip out to the veranda, easing my feet into gumboots still damp with sweat from yesterday. Eastward the sky has paled and dew sweetens the air. I swing my quiver over my shoulder and reach for the long bow; ram a pair of leather gloves into my pockets. The blackbird’s song falters but, as I step onto the path, it resumes.

Beyond the wide gate splashes of colour lie low on cloud. Rain may follow; last night I heard dad sniff disapprovingly at the barometer. Fine weather enables us to finish our harvest before searing summer sun and winds set in, stripping pasture of all nourishment. Rain means a delay.

I perch on the gate and tilt my face into the breeze. Two paddocks below, hay bales crowd the stubble: a week of cutting and raking transform a sea of tall, sweet rye grass to concentric orderliness. Yesterday the baler had chugged its way round the rows, feeding, compacting, binding and depositing the hay like monster droppings. Its rhythmic pulse reminded me of African drums, and its urgent feasting raised clouds of dust that drifted, carrying earthy smells to the house.

We’ve already carted and stacked several loads to the old hayshed and, as the baler worked into the evening, I strolled down to follow the beast, rolling two rows of hay into one. Dad and my brother followed, carting them in twilight, lifting bales one by one with a yellow contraption attached to the tractor.

Now the sky clears and the horizon glows scarlet.  Cattle graze. A mudlark calls beside me, its piercing cry sharp as a blade. Sparrows replace blackbirds in the orchard, and spill into the air with excited chatter. Clinking metal reminds me to unchain Husso, our border collie. He welcomes me with a deep stretch, grinning happily.

Together we walk down the dusty track, passed the cattle yards and dairy, deep into the heart of the farm. Slithering though the fence, I leave my bow and quiver resting against a stout post, and hurry to the pick up on the unfinished row. I lift the first bale with the edge of my boot, catch its roll, and push it along with my hands.

‘Ouch!’ I haul out my gloves and put them on. They’re way too big, the fingers folding as I slip them under the taut green twine of the next bale, manoeuvring it straight with my knee. Husso follows fresh trails, startles a lizard sheltering beneath the next bale: its home mown and gathered. We continue down the row, intent on our work, pausing at the corner to stretch. I survey the sea of bales, estimating the work ahead. It would be easy to accept defeat but, by tomorrow, this and the adjoining paddock should be empty.

Ken our neighbour, will bring his truck today. Hay carting is brightened with his cheerful banter and jokes. He is half dad’s age, a brawny, hard-working bloke. Dad lends him tools and implements in return for help. I look forward to riding in the cabin of his truck, with its familiar smell of old leather and grease, the floor strewn with grass seeds, ropes and tools. While I can drive the tractor now, I hope to try his truck this harvest.

After an hour’s work I stand at the centre of the paddock, a few steps from two pines, and sit on a bale. Husso slumps down beside me, panting and snapping at flies. I remove my gloves, slapping them against my jeans to dislodge dust and seeds that have gathered in the finger tips. The noise startles Husso. Reaching down, I reassure him, trying to mimic his panting. He watches me, amused. But everything amuses Huss.

It must be almost seven when I fish out my second biscuit, passing half to Husso who swallows it in one grateful gulp. I regard him with mock disgust.
‘Where’s that gone?’ He grins widely. ‘It’s breakfast. All you’re getting.’ His tail thumps the ground.

I crane my neck to see larks hovering over the paddocks.  Below crows stalk, stepping ungainly among the bales. I stand and stretch, keen to do more before breakfast.

With the last bale set aright, I reach for my bow and join Huss to walk back for breakfast. On the veranda we’re greeted by the smell of fresh toast and poached eggs. Grandad is shaving at the laundry basin, and turns to acknowledge me. I laugh as we share the tap, and I tell him he looks like a mime artist.

‘See any foxes?’ He asks, forgiving me.
I shake my head. ‘Nuh.’
‘Rabbits?’
‘No. Not one. Husso reckons he saw a few mice but he didn’t catch any.’ I watch as he completes his ritual, and I sniff his stick of shaving soap before I hand it to him. His knuckles are gnarled now, the skin like transparent, bruised parchment. But his hands are steady.

It’s almost nine when I finish my chores around the house. I’m eager to join the men. Grandad offers to finish the veranda and, for once, I accept. The day is already hot and mum insists I take a stainless steel billy of cordial and cups with me. The ice blocks will soon melt, and the billy’s sides are dewy with condensation. I set off across the yard, smiling at the sound of Grandad’s three-note whistle. The sky is cloudless now, and pale, and a gust of wind pulls at my shirt.

Dad and and my brother are still in the yard, changing the tractor filter. Soon we set off, Nick driving, with dad seated beside him on the mudguard. As I open the gate I leap to rescue the drink billy as its iceblocks tinkle in protest. Husso barks from the end of his chain. Dad says it’s too hot to bring him.

While the men fit the loader, I carry the drink billy over to the shade of the pines. The larger tree guards a generous patch of pine needles and twigs, but the smaller one barely casts a shadow around itself. I place the billy at the foot of its trunk as a gesture of encouragement.

Dad and I walk behind the load for the first row, throwing bales on board. Then dad hops up to stack. Once the loader is adjusted, I take over driving, freeing Nick to help dad. The first load is finished by mid-morning. But before we head back to the yard, the men secure the stack with ropes, and I pour each of us a drink. We quench our thirst on the first, and welcome a second. Dad drives while Nick and I sit atop the load, taking turns to open gates. As we bump and sway across the drains, I imagine how it must feel riding a camel.

Once the last bale is unloaded and I’ve swept the trailer floor, I return to the house to replenish our drinks. Mum has made some fresh vanilla ice cream: I spy two trays in the freezer beside the iceblocks. Now she’s preparing meat loaf for lunch.
‘I hope you’re not actually lifting those bales, dear.’ She’s worried I’ll hurt myself keeping up with the men.
‘I’m being careful, mum,’ I assure her, wiping my finger carefully around the inside of an empty can of sweetened condensed milk I’ve discovered in the sink. Mum rams some meaty looking stuff into the cast iron mincer, and clicks her dental plate as she labours over the handle. It’s quite muggy in the kitchen and her face is glossed and flushed.
‘What are you up to now, dear?’ she asks.
‘I’ll make two billies of cordial and then we’ll head back for the next load.’
‘And what time will you be in for lunch?’
We both look at the clock. ‘Should be done by one,’ I estimate. ‘Depends on when Mr Fahey comes. If we load his truck it’ll take longer.’
‘All right. I’ll have salad ready then.’ Mum smiles, glad of my cheerfulness. I lift the billies, and open the door with my foot.
‘Jo, you should be wearing a hat,’ she calls.
‘Hate hats. They blow off in the wind. And I’m not gonna tie one on!’ I place the billies on the step. ‘Look.’ I untie the bandana from my neck. ‘I’ll wear this over my head. That should help.’
‘It won’t keep the sun off your face.’
‘Well, I’m not wearing one of those boofy straw hats, that’s for sure. What about a towelling one like dad’s?’
‘I’ll check at Reicha’s this afternoon.’
‘Thanks. Make sure it’s a size that stays wedged on.’

I carry the billies over to the haystack, and pour mug-fulls for the men. I leave the second billie behind. We’re about to set off when Ken arrives. He’s just finished raking his own hay, ready for baling.
‘You mightn’t be baling tomorrow if that cool change comes, Ken,’ dad warns.
‘Yes, Mr Clarke. I heard the forecast. Never mind. Bit of rain doesn’t hurt. Hay dries out quick enough.’ He seems unperturbed, and he has already completed a day’s work, milking his herd and feeding the pigs.

Ken and Nick load the truck while I drive the tractor and load for dad. We take a break in the shade of the pines before setting off to finish Ken’s load.

After lunch, Ken invites me into the driver’s seat, and sits with me for a half lap of the paddock til I’m confident. Then he climbs down to help dad and Nick. I’m thrilled to complete a load at the wheel. We’ve done several more by afternoon tea time. The unrelenting wind keeps us dry and reasonably cool. We’ve changed into long shirts that flap about in the blustery conditions, and dad insists I wear his towelling hat. I keep it wedged down over my ears so it won’t blow away.

After we’ve unloaded the hay, we stop for a cuppa. The kitchen is still a little cooler than outside, and a welcome reprieve from the nagging wind and flies. We’ve decide to work as late as we can, and I help mum prepare sandwiches. Dinner will wait for dusk or a break in the weather, and Ken agrees to work until milking time.

Stiff and tired now, we return to the paddocks. At five the wind changes direction, still hot but more humid. Sweat streams down our backs and legs, feeding desperate flies. The wind freshens as we set off up the track, swinging round to the south west. Cattle can smell the change and leave their shade to graze. Dark clouds build like marble columns, with thunderheads threatening. Dad sends Nick and me back to the paddock and we stack the bales in stooks against the rain, leaving outer rows for the last load.

The dramatic sky drives us hard, and we finish as the vehicles return. I’m glad to sit down in the driver’s seat, peering through the dusty windscreen at the imminent storm. We make a final, desperate effort as dark clouds loom. The air is almost completely still. Distant rumblings announce the first whiff of salty air. Sheet lightning flashes above the horizon and a huge thunderhead swallows the last of the sun. As both loads lumber up the track, the storm arrives, thunder crashing only a few miles away. It’s unnerving.

Dad orders us off the load and instructs we run ahead. Stumbling through the open the gate, we sit panting in shed as both vehicles ease steadily through the yard. Unloading hay into steel shed during an electrical storm can be risky. Dad leaves the trailer parked beneath the big cypress tree, while Ken backs his truck in beside the haystack. Daylight has faded to gloom. We loosen ropes and begin kicking and tumbling the hay bales down to where dad and Ken work furiously. We finish just as huge raindrops lob down on the roof.

Ken dives into his truck, and dad thanks him profusely for his help. He heads home to relieve his wife, who is working alone in the dairy, with two young children at her side.

The heavy drops send us scurrying, too. Dad lights the pressure lamp and hangs it on wire from a girder in the middle of the shed. Beneath its eerie, hissing glow we stack the remaining bales before sitting, too exhausted to move, staring out at the storm. The wind has risen again and we shiver in clothes soaked and heavy with sweat.

As the full front of the storm churns overhead, clattering hail becomes a deafening downpour. Forked lightning and spontaneous belts of thunder rip the air. The drain pipes spill and gutterings overflow, creating a cascading waterfall. Driving wind drives spray over us and the smell of wet hay and warm, soaked earth sweeten our fatigue.

After dousing the lamp, we scurry over to the house, leaving the other load for tomorrow. We arrive drenched and panting. Nick and dad discard their sodden clothes and boots on the veranda, and head indoors. I rinse my face under the gushing drainpipe, and return to sheltered against the veranda wall that is still hot from the day. I tilt my face to the sky in worhsipful adorations, my hair and clothes plastered to my skin, sensing the passion of the storm, its intensity, the raking thunder, the unpredictability of living so close to the elements.

‘Jo. Come inside.’ Mum’s at the door, holding the fly-screen open, and offering me a towel. ‘Here, little puddleduck,’ she laughs.
Pouting, I take the towel, and wash at the laundry basin. The soap stings my scratches and the towel is merciless on sunburn. Although beyond hunger or fatigue, my first wish is to climb on my bike and ride up and down the road, slicing through fresh puddles. I peer over the towel. Grandad is standing there, grinning at me.
‘There’ll be time for that another day,’ he says. ‘More storms and harvests.’
‘Hope so, Grandad. But never one exactly like this.’

I amble up the hall to my room. My throat tightens. How ever much I love Grandad and this summer, it will end soon. I have little confidence or reason to believe good things will last. Perhaps it’s just part of growing up: a child beginning to comprehend time and the hardness of facts, struggling with evidence of what the future may truly hold.

INFINITY

Aurora australis from sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov

INFINITY (excerpt from The Archer’s Game  (c) 2008)

I power my bike along the driveway, through the grainy dusk. This evening is a portal of renewal, where darkness deepens the familiar face of my world and attunes the lesser senses.
The cattle grid thrums beneath my tyres and I scribe an arc on the bitumen, rebounding down the track, wheels spewing dust round the big, old cypress tree. My thighs burn and cold wind brings tears to my eyes, reflecting evening stars that brighten the infinite sky. But wait! One of them is moving!
The realisation is shocking. One of the stars is moving.
I brake hard; straddle my bike, mouth gaping. It is moving: a star, high in the southern sky, scraping a white line, slowly across the void. A gulp of excitement catches in my throat. This is a rare sighting: an orbiting spacecraft, wavering, with vapour spewing in its wake. But no! That’s not right. My hand clasps my own mouth. That vaporous, wavy line. Satellites don’t leave those. Perhaps it’s a jet flying very high in the atmosphere. No! You wouldn’t see the jet then, would you? Not the craft, only its vapour trail!
The jet stream begins to waver. ‘Geez!’ Fear parches my throat. ‘This isn’t right! Spaceships don’t do this…do they? I’m sure they don’t.’ Then realisation. What if it’s aliens?
‘Gotta get dad!’
I hurtle down the driveway to the front of the house, bark and twigs flying as I speed on. Crossing the grid, I rip to a halt below the front steps, bike wheels jack-knifed and spinning. The flyscreen door flings wide as I pound down the hallway to the sitting room, confronting the startled faces of my parents. Dad is already out of his chair.
‘There’s a thing in the sky,’ I rasp, ‘like a star but it’s moving.’
The look on my face must be shocking. He hurries past me. Grabbing my bike I race after him. We stand midway up the house paddock.
‘There,’ I point accusingly at the brilliant thing. He sees it and is awestruck like me. We just gape and watch.
I hear mum shuffling at the gateway. She can’t see anything through the trees and doesn’t come further.
‘Is it a spaceship, dad? D’you reckon?’
He doesn’t answer right away and that frightens me.
‘Dad?’
‘It’s an aurora,’ he declares finally, his face beaming. ‘Lord, I haven’t seen one of these in years!’
‘A what?’
‘An aurora. Aurora Australis. Watch!’ he urges. ‘See how that tail is spreading? Look, it’s changing colour. Watch! You may never see one like this again!’ The awe and intensity of his voice is compelling.
High in the atmosphere a vaporous cloud rises like fine dust, violet now, with folds of translucent mauve and radiant, deep blue. The star continues, scratching its line through the night sky, fading to the south. Above us the cloud turns indigo, brilliant, intense, and emitting energy I can feel but not explain. We watch entranced.
The evening is so still, crisp with cold, even the crickets silent. Nothing but the sound of blood pumping in my ears. And yet I can hear something. Or do I feel it? A high-pitched hiss emanating from the cloud like static on shortwave. Its presence stretches above me, confounding even my imagination. I am humbled by the utter beauty and scale of it.
The aurora has taken on a brilliance beyond that of any stars. The colour deepens in waves, moving ever so slightly, like the bottom of a long velvet curtain caught in a celestial breeze. The spectacle fills a good quarter of the sky, suspended right over Terang, bathing everything in eerie, dusty lavender. I remain captivated, no longer aware that my legs are numb with cold, or that my body is swaying, my heart pounding. I’m so utterly spellbound I can barely breathe.
Not even the presence of the most revered saint, or the most significant, historic event could turn me away from this spectacle, so powerful is its effect. This is an act of God I can understand, irrefutable, beyond spectacular. Its beauty assaults my senses, rendering all imaginings obsolete. Time and space dissolve and I ache to understand it.
Gradually the brilliance fades, the indigo deepens to violet. It has blazed across the sky for half an hour and in its departure brings a tide of disappointment. I am filled with a sense of longing, willing it to stay, holding it with every breath but powerless, helpless, as it melts into the night.
‘Mmm.’ Dad breaks the silence. He sounds weary, sharing my wonder and disappointment.
‘Oh dad, it’s going…’
Barely a smudge remains above us, and the aurora has ceased to sing. Time returns, like gravity to a landed swimmer, and I feel the chill air on my legs. Night has fallen so suddenly. Only moments before the first stars seemed pale and uncertain.
‘Well,’ dad sighs. ‘We won’t forget this moment, that’s for sure.’

I am shaking with cold and bewilderment. So many questions crowding in, such feelings begging explanation. I thought I knew much about my world, and now this. I never imagined beauty could be so real.
‘What makes the colour, dad? And what was that starry thing?’
He tilts his head, unsure. ‘I think dust in the atmosphere burns but I can’t remember why. I’ve got an astronomy book inside. We’ll find out more from there. But I’ve never seen one like this before.’
‘You’ve seen others?’
‘Yes, one or two. Much paler and brief compared to this.’
We wait a little longer, two figures in the dimness, swaying beneath the towering manna gum.
‘Well, I think I’ll go in now,’ says dad, finally. ‘It’s getting cold. There’ll be another frost by morning.’
‘Okay. I’ll be in soon.’ He walks stiffly back to the house.
My eyes are glued to the sky, to what I remember, willing it back. I stomp my feet for warmth and then, with one last glance, pick up my bike and ride a couple of circuits to get warm, all the while peering skyward. Perhaps another will start. If one, why not two? I bet I’ll be watching the sky for the rest of my life, now.
Hope of a reprise fades. I begin to understand that such events can happen anytime, whether I’m present or not: behind storm clouds, over the horizon, or when I’m asleep. I coast along the path, setting my bike against the fence. There’s an awful lot up there I need to know. I head inside, a dozen questions spawning a dozen more.
Dad’s library fits snugly into the corner of the sitting room, between the chimney and the wall. Neat piles of magazines cover the bench top of smooth green leather: Walkabout, UNESCO Courier, a volume about BHP, and another on Antarctica, obscuring a pile of yellow-spined National Geographics. The contents of the shelves appears unremarkable to me. Apart from a few leather bound titles and some classics, I assume the rest are reference books, and I’ve rarely seen dad delve into them. He doesn’t have time or the inclination anymore, preferring music, reading the paper, at least until the television arrived.
Tonight, I step from dad’s armchair to the bench top and set to ruffling across the spines, searching urgently for anything on astronomy.
‘It has a navy blue dust jacket and the title is in white writing,’ dad recalls, craning his neck and squinting to see. ‘It may be on a lower shelf.’
I grunt. ‘Dad, astronomy starts with ‘A’. Why isn’t it on the top shelf?’ It’s an impudent question but I’m impatient.
‘Because it’s my library, dear.’
‘Found it!’ I declare, pulling the book from its place to read the subtitle, ‘A Guide to the Southern Hemisphere.’ There’s an illustration of starry heavens on the cover, and it is stiff to open. The pages are cream-coloured with age, have a musty smell, and are unevenly cut. But, most of all, the volume is disappointingly thin. I imagine Aurora must be a vast subject.
‘Here,’ dad calls, reaching for the book. I hand it to him, and sit down on the bench, looking over his elbow. His eyes scan the index and I watch his face closely for a sign of discovery.
‘There!’ He exclaims, turning to the page and reading something about solar storms and magnetic fields, stuff I’ve never heard of before. Then he hands me the book. There a black and white photo of an aurora makes a paltry attempt to replicate what we’ve witnessed. I read through the text for anything he may have missed. There aren’t even diagrams to provide a better understanding of the phenomenon.
‘There’s a good photo of an aurora in that ANARE book,’ says mum.
‘What’s an ANARE book?’
‘That book about Antarctica, there on the bench behind you.’
It is a large book at the bottom of a weighty pile. I move magazines to get to it. The dust jacket has stuck to the bench top and makes a schtuck noise as I lift it up. Its glossy cover features a dramatic picture of a singular blue-white iceberg. I must have glanced at it once before as the picture is familiar. A quick riffle through it now is promising and I remain on the bench, resting the broad bulk on my lap, turning the glossy pages to rediscover icy wastes. I remember the picture of penguins and the one of the man whose beard is encrusted with snotty icicles but, inexplicably, I do not recall the next photo, a full-paged image of an aurora Australis. It is of a grainy, greeny-yellow cloud, such a disappointing contrast to the crisp indigo velvet curtain that hung in our night sky.
Some text on the following page offers more. I slide off the bench and curl up in my armchair, legs crossed to support the book. I read patiently and then sit back to consider the meaning. Across the room, mum knits, unmoved by the events of this evening.
It’s getting late and my curiosity is sated for now. While I’ve learned the aurora is uncommon, it is still hard to accept such a brilliant, dramatic spectacle as an atmospheric phenomenon. Surely someone else has seen it, too. Surely one of my school friends. I want to talk to someone who knows more about them. My teacher might know. She’ll be able to explain it better.
I show mum the picture. It is a solemn moment, and I feel as if I am showing her a secret, like revealing the face of God.
‘This is nothing like the one we saw, mum,’ I explain. ‘Is it dad?’
‘No,’ he agrees. ‘Ours was bright purple, and hung like an enormous curtain. That looks nothing like it, really.’
‘I should’ve come out,’ mum sighs. ‘I couldn’t see anything but stars from the gate.’ She resumes knitting. ‘I’ve never seen an aurora.’
‘There’ll be more,’ says dad, assuring her. ‘They come in cycles. It’s just unusual for them to be so high in our sky. The others I’ve seen were low-set, and most of them early in the morning, when I’m down at the dairy.’
I return the book and fish out The Overloaded Ark again, flipping through its pages.
‘May I borrow this, dad?’
‘Of course.’ He looks a little surprised. ‘Where’d you hear of it?
‘Last year our fourth grade teacher read it to us, a little each afternoon. We got right through it. I’d like to read it again.’
‘You’ll enjoy it,’ he assures me. ‘He’s a good bloke, Durrell. And, if you like that, there’ll be other books up there you’ll enjoy, too.’ He grins, pleased to have a visitor to his library.
Dad’s right, the book gives me an appetite for naturalist adventures. Other books are well illustrated or have intriguing covers, and I pull them down to investigate further. Several feature collections of papers written by famous scientists, philosophers and historians. They are quite readable and I take them to my room. There is a volume of prose and poems by Henry Lawson. I know some of them from school. They make me hungry for more about my own country.

One Sunday afternoon I happen upon dad dozing in his chair after dinner. I climb onto the bench to search the shelves again and he stirs. I hadn’t intended to wake him but, having done so, it pays off.
‘There are plenty of bush ballads about Australia,’ he says, limbering stiffly to search for them. ‘There,’ he points, ‘that one with the green cover.’
After a brief look I hand it to him, and climb down to perch at his side. He flips through the stained, musty pages, looking for something. ‘This was awarded to me at Sunday school when I was a boy,’ he reveals, showing me a certificate pasted on the flyleaf. ‘And there’s some good stuff in here.’ Turning the pages, he comes to familiar territory and stops, backtracking over one or two, and smiling in recognition.
‘This one is called Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, and it’s written by Banjo Paterson.’ He takes a breath, holding it briefly as he studies the page, and then he begins a most extraordinary reading. As the adventure of Mulga Bill unwinds, both dad and I roar with laughter, and he has to pause in order to recover his breath and composure.
We enjoyed it so much that he riffles through the pages and finds another. I recognise it from the first phrase.
‘The Man From Snowy River!’ I exclaim and dad nods, smiling as he reads. I lean back against the chair, closing my eyes, listening for the rhythm of words as they gallop with the horses, the bragging of horsemen and the excitement of the chase.
Dad enjoys reading it and asks if I’d like to fetch him another volume, this time an older collection of poets. And he reads me some Robbie Burns in such a heavy brogue I’m astonished.
‘Where on earth did you learn to talk like that?’
‘Oh, one of my uncles used to recite these after dinner. It’s a lot easier from memory than trying to read from the page. Look!’ He points to the verses and I can see what he means. Some of the words are unrecognisable.
‘And if you like Lawson, see if you like this one.’ He begins another, missing the title, straight into the first verse. His voice softens, lilting, and the words roll like the hills and plains they describe. While I have never heard it before, the images and pull of the words are undeniable.
‘What’s it called?’ I ask when he’s finished.
‘My Country,’ he replies, handing me the book.
While I read it through again, he reaches for more books, one a more recent publication with a colourful jacket and another, much older, with gilt edged pages. He sits back down again, legs crossed, propping his elbows on the chair arms.
‘You’ll like some of these,’ he promises.
As he flicks through the pages I spy numerous illustrations. The book is filled with short stories. ‘These are written by Henry Lawson. Some of them are yarns, but others are quite dramatic.’ Almost reluctantly he hands it over. ‘And this one…I’m not so sure. He’s a fine poet and there are some real gems in here.’ Finding one he begins to read. The rhythm is catchy, words about the love about two lands. Dad must know it well for he reads faultlessly, only occasionally glancing at the page.
‘That’s lovely, dad. The way the words ripple, rise and fall. The sound of the bellbirds and the colour of the bush. You can even feel the sunlight and smell the eucalypts. It’s so beautiful. I’ll never be able to write like that.’
‘Then enjoy reading it,’ he replies, showing me the poem. It’s called A Dedication. I reach for it, and turn to the cover. Gordon’s Poems. Searching for the title page, I discover the flyleaf. It is inscribed in pen and ink: ‘Wishing Bessie many Happy Birthdays with best wishes from Jack. 14.7.99′.
‘Who are Jack and Bessie, then?’
‘My mum and dad.’
‘You mean grandad gave this to your mum?’
‘Yes. In 1899.’
I’m astonished. ‘But grandad’s name is John. John Sanders. You told me. His initials are even monogrammed on his handkerchiefs.’
‘Well, everyone calls him Jack.’
‘And Bessie?’
‘Elizabeth. You’re named after her.’
I’m silenced by wonder. Perhaps I have more beginnings than I realise. Opposite the title page is an engraving of the poet.
‘This is such a beautiful book, dad.’
‘And it’s yours to keep and treasure. And this one.’ He places another volume on my lap.
I gather the books to me and offer dad a hug. While he has shared some wonderful books with me, it is the moments spent with him that are beyond words.
After realising the bounty of dad’s shelves, I spend hours perusing their contents. And when they’re exhausted, I cross the floor, and search mum’s collection. There are many volumes of Courier magazines, offering a more grown-up view of humanity than the National Geographics, portraying less pretty, simpler views of the bigger world, ones we glimpse on TV. But there is one book that leaves me baffled. I take it to mum, and ask her to explain it better. It is a small volume of reproduced paintings by various artists, each work accompanied by a short biography.
‘These artists are disabled people, dear,’ mum explains. ‘Some of them have suffered from diseases like polio and cannot use their hands or can’t walk. So they have learned to paint and hold their brushes in their mouths. Others can’t use their hands at all, and draw and paint with their toes. Yet the work is so fine, isn’t it?’
The book fascinates me and I return to it, marvelling at what a person can accomplish even after calamity in their lives.
Another of mum’s treasures is an intriguing book with the title Other People’s Children. It contains little text after its brief introduction, and there follow dozens of full-page, black and white photographs of children from all around the world. Unhindered by captions I’m forced to gather all I can from the children’s expressions, the way they dress and from the background, all of which suggest poverty and hardship: the harshness of snow or deserts. Their faces open yet their stories seem mysterious and tantalising.
Then there’s a book about Mahatma Gandhi called All Men Are Brothers, a recent addition to mum’s shelves. It is in his own words, with quotations from his speeches and writings. The man and his story bind a spell in my heart. He speaks of peace in a time of great turmoil in our world and I recognise, for the first time, a powerful politician who advocates change through peace: the concept of non-violent non-co-operation.
* * *
While continuing to study the skies, I become equally enamoured with geology, a subject nourished by adventures to a nearby lake and a neighbouring mountain, and Aunt Aileen’s expeditions to the coast. The aurora has left me in no doubt that mysteries are not confined to the pages of books or television, or even my imagination, but are present everyday in my own world, in every corner of the farm, simply awaiting discovery.
Each evening dad and I watch the weather forecast at the end of the news, and try to outdo each other’s explanations as to why the sunrise is red, or how a perfectly cool, clear spring morning can lurch into an afternoon of hot, blustery north winds. I learn how to read the barometer, to understand the significance of air pressure and humidity. And, pouring over weather maps in the newspaper, he explains the source of the south westerly storms, and the onset of frosts and fog.
After dinner one warm summer evening, I climb up the cypress hedge and roll into my hammock. As I brush away leaves and stray cobwebs, I gaze heavenward at the vastness of the Milky Way. It is a clear night, the stars flash pink and blue in the incomprehensibility of space. I mark familiar constellations and locate magnetic south from the Southern Cross. I have learned that magnetic poles are incidental, fickle, and capable of change. I notice variations in planetary positions, how the moon is higher in the sky, now, rising full and ripe over the shoulder of Mount Noorat.
As I lie there, staring up into the sky, an odd sensation overcomes over me, a wave of giddiness. It passes and I gaze once more, noticing how some stars are pale, millions of light years away, while brighter ones seem almost neighbours. Then the giddiness returns. This time I don’t look away, allowing the sensation to settle. I know I can’t fall. I’ve checked the hammock. It and the trees are sound.
Still struggling with the unnerving lurch in my stomach, I focus on the stars. Soon the vertigo eases and I begin to realise that my perception has changed. It’s as if I stand at a huge window or viewing platform in space. And, with the gentle motion of trees swaying, I numb to my own physicality, and float among the stars.
Clambering down to earth, I’m still shaking from that ethereal experience, and it is difficult to walk. And after this lesson, I view the sky in the new way. Whether lying adrift on the lawn, or draped in the less comfortable arms of the deckchair, I can fall into the sky. Night is never just a canopy of stars, again. It is an infinite ocean.

 

THE HAMMOCK

THE
HAMMOCK (A chapter from my autobiographical novel called The
Archer’s Game, copyright to me since 2008) Out of respect for my
family I have changed some names and places in this account.
THE HAMMOCK The excitement of another Christmas passes, leaving a
litter of half-read storybooks and toys on my bedroom floor. My
brother is commissioning his latest meccano project: a model hay
baler that produces hay from freshly mown lawn clippings. I range
from the house, seeking new adventures. My first stop is the
cypress hedge, where I worm my way up through a hole in the leafy
floor. Clambering along the aerial walkway, I head towards the
orchard end. On a whim, I stop at the second last tree and climb
its sturdy trunk. As I near the top, my weight causes the greenwood
to bend alarmingly and I must grab a neighbouring branch to break
my fall. I swing impulsively across the void and slam into the last
tree, hanging for a moment, stunned at my recklessness. Grateful
for a safe footing, I peer down at the thicket of branches.
Well, I wouldn’t have fallen far. I climb to
the top, this time anticipating the treetop’s weakness, and grasp a
neighbouring branch. Letting go, I swing back to the original tree,
exhilarated by my impersonation of Tarzan. From my perch, I peer
out over the orchard and fields. In the distance, the town shimmers
in a haze of smoke and heat. As I rest against the trunk, unsure of
what to do next, a sudden, surging westerly tosses the hedge from
side to side. I cling to the truck amidst the straining branches.
Finally, the air falls still, leaving the trees rocking gently. It
would be lovely to experience that again without having to cling on
for my life. A web, perhaps, or a net. A hammock linking the two
trees together, suspending me in the middle. I study the distance
between the trunk and branches. Should be possible. ‘Oroo. Debbie.’
Mum’s operatic call carries from the house. Further plans must
wait. ‘Yee-harr,’ I call, aware she hasn’t a clue where I am. ‘Tend
to the chooks, would you dear? I don’t know where your brother is.’
‘Righto.’ It’s fun being invisible. The next day continues a warm,
uncluttered week. After chores and morning tea, I return to the
hedge with a bundle of used hay-bale twine stuffed up my shirt.
Worming through the hole in the floor, I clamber to the treetop,
curling one leg around the truck for support. With the twine draped
over nearby branches, I begin to untangle and join the lengths
together. I fetch more, finishing my work on the ground. I’ve
completed three lengths, plaited together, forming a long, sturdy
rope. I return to the treetops, and tie one end securely around the
greenwood trunk of the second tree before tossing the remainder
across to the last tree. I swing after it, and secure it there, to
the trunk, leaving enough slackness between for the hammock. After
throwing the remainder back, I follow, tying it off above the
initial knot. With lunch over, I make more rope, and knot a series
of warp lengths along the hammock frame, and then weave another,
spidering back and forth, creating a web between the two trees. Mum
calls me in before it’s finished. I return after dinner, completing
the final knots and checking my work. It looks safe and inviting. I
roll in, cautiously gripping the plaited sides, ready to grab a
branch should I fall. The feeling is delicious and I lie back, tree
branches framing either side of a panoramic view of the sky. I
relax more, peering across to the dusky lights of the distant town,
and follow the horizon to our house, the orchard and dairy. Beyond
dry paddocks and over the hedgerows, a mountain basks in the soft
lavender bloom of evening. The hammock is a bit uncomfortable, with
knots digging in, the twine sagging here, tight there. It needs
adjusting. I will do that tomorrow in better light. For now, weary
and elated, the success of my task is enough. As evening deepens, I
surrender to the infinite sky, watching familiar stars dust the
canopy. A breeze sets the trees sighing again, with wafts of tangy
resin.

*** As fate would have it,
a westerly change sweeps through overnight and I gaze forlornly at
the grey, tumbling sky. Blustery winds set the eaves moaning and
the towering manna gum outside my window hisses, tossing furiously.
A storm arrives, with snarling thunder, pelting the roof with balls
of ice. I wait it out in my room, restless and disappointed,
rubbing at the sap stains on my hands. The floor-dusting mop lies
at my feet, barely used. Just the thought of cleaning adds
heaviness to the day. I poke the mop beneath my spare bed,
collecting dust balls and a couple of downy feathers. One final
sweep draws a slipper into view, unmatched all summer. I toss it
next to its pair. A sudden squall sends draughts down the chimney,
and a chunk of soot tumbles out onto the hearth. While I’m using
the bathroom, Chris wires the brass doorhandle to an electric
transformer belonging to his new train set. He waits
patiently for me to emerge. I shriek with fright and pain. ‘You
bugger, I scream and, after I realise what he’s done, give him a
good tongue lashing. Then I dob him in. Mum handballs him to dad.
I’ve had enough confinement. Rain or not, I slip outside. Sunday is
fine. After church and dinner, I rush through the dishes, keen to
get back to my hammock. A gentle south easterly has left the ropes
barely damp. They creak under my weight. The hammock has ample
length. My only concern is its tendency to roll. Collecting more
twine, I tie anchor lines to sturdy branches and make a plaited
belt, tying it over me for added security. With this done, I lie
back and soak up the satisfaction. Who would have thought of a
hammock in the treetops? Sunlit warmth melts through my clothes. A
breeze hushes in, swaying me back and forth and I doze, savouring
the pure wonder of what I’ve done. I spend most of these holidays
in the treetops, much to dad’s amusement and mum’s nagging. ‘Young
girls shouldn’t spend so much time alone, and in dangerous places,’
she harps. ‘It’s not natural.’ Chris comes up for visit but prefers
his own engineering and mischief. One afternoon, and inexplicably,
he sets fire to the hedge. He reckons he wanted to see if he could
put the flames out with dad’s knapsack. Luckily, he does, but not
before dad finds out, dashing to his aid. Sometimes my brother goes
beyond puzzling, and his foolishness makes me angry. At night, my
hammock presents other wonders. The stars seem much closer and I
feel the sky rolling me into its belly. Constellations are already
familiar now, and phases of the moon and planets more predictable.
Even the scratched tails of shooting stars seem common. Some
afternoons I watch banks of crisp, white clouds tumble to form
canyons, changing shapes in ways that stretch my imagination. One
autumn afternoon I witness a swarm of spider webs drifting along in
warm currents of air, and later the cotton-yarn vapour trail of a
jet-plane fluffing to cotton wool, dispersing like steam. Flocks of
migrating birds sweep across the sky. Sometimes I hear them honking
in the stillness. Their changing formations and the beat of their
wings makes a symphony of their flight. I hear them at night, too,
even spotting individual birds silhouetted against the stars. With
the onset of winter days, fingers of cold wind buffet and shake my
enthusiasm and I leave my home in the sky for more sheltered spots
in the workshop, lofts and haysheds. And as I ride the circuit, I
gaze up to the hedge wistfully, remembering the warm days there. I
know that when I return next summer, it will feel different –
things always do. * * * There is another side to my mum, things she
does that are not loving at all. She can be spiteful and
manipulative; causing me to withdraw, confused, sad and lonely.
Though only a child, I recognise grown up games. They are hard to
ignore, worse than Chris’s teasing. Sometimes I find myself
wondering why she adopted us at all. After her angry outbursts, and
once we’ve calmed down again, she makes a point of reassuring us of
her love, and yet I do doubt her. She arcs easily, especially with
dad. He says it’s like walking on egg shells, so easy is it to
displease her. There is a point where she turns her back on us, and
vanishes into a deep, dark place, behind a wall of silence. It can
happen so fast I must back track, in order to understand what has
gone wrong. First there is a verbal slap, administered immediately,
and I know by her voice and the set of her red mouth, the scale of
her displeasure. Then I must wait, allowing the sting of the
incident to cool to a bearable smart. I manage my quiet tears,
always somewhere outside, away from the house, where time and space
allow me to sit and ponder. Even a careless remark is fuel. She can
detect the tiniest flicker of contempt beneath the shawl of my love
for her. A task left undone, Chris and I bickering: inevitable
during holidays and weekends when we wind each other up. Then there
is always tension with dad, and this overflows, exposing us to the
sharp edge of her irritation, while dad skulks off to busy himself
somewhere on the farm. This morning an argument erupts between us
in the sandpit. Chris builds a highway under a railway line; much
like those we’ve seen on trips to Melbourne. I pour water from my
bucket into a hollow, making a lake for my new bark boat. The
sandpit provides plenty of room our constructions, grand as they
are, but with Chris’s work taking precedence over mine in size and
location. I bump his sandy bridge, causing a major landslide.
Tempers flare. He serves me an exasperated punch. Hurt, I run
screeching towards the back veranda, yelling abuse over my
shoulder. Mum has been watching us from the laundry window. She
turns towards the backdoor just as Chris overtakes my shrill cries
with his bellowing. He pushes passed me into the house, ready to
defend himself. But mum is at the end of her tether and tired of
our constant fighting. Still holding the iron, she loses her
patience, waving it toward us as she explodes. ‘Get out! Get out
both of you! I’m sick of you both!’ We gape, frozen in mid stride.
‘I’m sick and tired of you both! You can’t play together for five
minutes without an upset! I’m sick of it! Get out!’ We’re
speechless at her vehemency, at her ugly, contorted face. Her mouth
stretches around each word, her eyes inflamed, filling with tears.
Neither of us knows what to do. This is our home. Where do we go?
‘Get out!’ she cries hoarsely, threatening us with the iron. ‘Go
away and leave me in peace!’ and she slams the iron down hard on
the table. I flee out the back door, dashing through the gate and
into the yard, emitting a shaky wail as I seek somewhere passed the
anger and fear. Chris is stunned. He pauses at the steps in shock.
A terrible hurt seeps into him. He waits, hoping mum doesn’t really
mean what she’s said, that she’s just very angry and will come and
reassure him. However, no one comes and a dreadful sickness settles
in. Eventually he drifts back to the sandpit and sits with his eyes
lowered, prodding the ground with a stick. An apology is useless
now: a game must be played. He sets to repairing the damaged wall.
I steady my pace, beyond the sheds now, enveloped in the safety of
distance. My cry reduces to a guttural sob and I wipe my nose on my
forearm. I feel like a chastened puppy driven out with the thrust
of a broom. Mum has never spoken to us like this before. She is
very angry. But why? It was just a fight! We needed refereeing, not
exile! We haven’t bickered at all this morning, not until then. And
we weren’t bothering her every five minutes, like she said. We’d
barely spoken a word, so engrossed in our work. Maybe she expected
help with the washing. But she hadn’t ask. Normally she asks if she
wants help. I stop at the wood-chop and sit down on the splitting
log, searching my morning for clues. She did seem moody at
breakfast, and dad was more sullen than usual. Perhaps they’d had
an argument earlier. Sometimes I hear them late at night, in the
kitchen with the door closed so we can’t hear. How can you not hear
hysterics like that? We know about it and we are afraid. I wander
below the cypress hedge, finally weaving my way up through the
tangle of branches to my hammock, rolling into safety. I free my
hair and finger comb it tidy, retying it. There are leaves down
inside my shirt. I fish them out. My tears are dry now, only
gulping and sniffling remain. Here I can shrug off the sting of
mum’s words. I am safe. The tightness eases in my stomach. I know I
am loved, but by others, not mum. There’s someone bigger and
kinder, a presence in these trees, around the fields, helping me
put things into perspective. This spirit has taught me that anger
is unpredictable, like fire. And, in a deeper part of me, the same
presence soaks up my pain like blotting paper drying splattered
ink. While the marks remain, at least I can turn to a new page,
feeling warm and safe again, as if protected by a braver, older
sister. Soon my mind buzzes with pleasant thoughts, my eyes
searching the edges of clouds for inspiration. A westerly wind
picks up and it chills me. The tide of air ebbs and flows, lifting
cypress sap and damp, leafy smells to my nose. I watch the clouds
change shape, tumbling, swelling and fading. The sky seems so deep
when I think about it and the very thought leaves a tingle in my
chest. There is something bigger up there, bigger than the sky,
much greater than the empty space mum sends me to; a place beyond
her sickness, where children don’t have to do a penance of chores.
I smile, imagining I have run away to grandad’s. But he’ll send me
back, I know. Perhaps I can build a little house in one of the
bigger trees and live beyond mum’s psychotic episodes. I often
wonder what my real mum is like and whether she is still alive.
While it’s nice to pretend I am missed by a mum and dad, it all
seems so far away. I feel like a tiny boat swept by sinister
currents on a vast ocean. I adjust the hessian bag that pillows my
head. I can understand adoption now, and this knowledge fuels
conflicts, frequent and intense. I wasn’t just chosen from the
babies in the hospital, and it wasn’t sweet like your bed-time
stories. My real mum didn’t want me, or couldn’t keep me. Mum won’t
say which, only that she doesn’t know. She dismisses the topic in a
hurtful, controlling way. Since Chris is adopted too, it is evident
mum can’t bear children of her own. She mentions this once, during
a sex talk, now a subject I am old enough to understand, she says.
‘An arrangement was made,’ I am told, ‘before you were born. The
hospital phoned and I drove to Melbourne to collect you.’ She
pauses there, studying my face as if further disclosure will feed
our conflict. I ask if she met my real mum. ‘No, I never met her,’
she says. ‘And we weren’t given any information about her either.
Only about you.’ Her voice thickens with sweetness, and a smile
spreads to her eyes. ‘So, after a few days I brought you home.’
‘How old was I?’ ‘Only six days, but you were sick. They weren’t
looking after you properly.’ ‘How did you feed me?’ ‘We had
everything ready. I fed you from a bottle, nursing you in that
chair in the spare room. We had your bassinette in our room then.’
‘Yes, I remember that.’ Mum smiles. ‘I think you were a bit young,
dear. You can’t possibly remember that far back. I have kept it for
you. The bassinette. It’s in the top of the linen press.’ ‘But
why?’ ‘So you can use it for your baby, when you’re a mother.’ I
shudder now. The thought of a newborn, the very thought of
motherhood, of looking after a crying, helpless bundle; I couldn’t
do that. I’ve only been close to one baby in my whole life, a
distant cousin, and I was so scared of dropping her that I didn’t
want to hold her at all. Mum continued: ‘We’ve always told you
about being adopted, dear,’ she continued. ‘Other adopted children
haven’t been told and they have found out later from the hurtful
gossip. We want to make sure you know so that won’t happen to you.’
It’s true. That happened to one of my school friends. She learned
of it when a classmate, supposing she knew, made mention of it. Not
maliciously, but the damage was done. The adult version of my past
fails to ease the way between us. The abyss of mistrust and
moodiness remains. It’s not just about being adopted really, more a
contempt and fear borne of the many hurts mum has inflicted on us.
Not unexpectedly, the bell rings for lunch. Mum cooees for dad:
hardly the call of a farmer’s wife. ‘Martin! Ooroo!’ I sigh and the
tightness returns to my throat. The idea of a tree house warrants
further thought. I will scout for materials and locations after
lunch. Mum broods for the rest of the day, resenting my presence so
openly I can feel the fug of it in the kitchen. The mealtime is
quiet and civil, our eyes never quite meeting. She speaks little,
reminding Chris to empty the bucket of scraps for the chooks, and
to replenish their water dish. He is sullen too, and knows the less
said the better. And dad guesses there’s been trouble, too, but he
is beyond caring. Any enquiry, however well meant, will lead to
arguments and unpleasantness. Once puzzled by mum’s emotional
baggage, he has long retired from husbandry, choosing to co-exist
within the perimeters of the house. He eats his roast beef and
salad, adding horseradish from a small white lidded pot with its
own, ridiculously small spoon. Radio news fills the silent, uneasy
corners with familiar voices. Chris excuses himself when his plate
is empty. He knows how to read the situation: he is no longer in
trouble. The focus is on me, now. I remain. We shared the squabble,
but I carry the blame. It has always been so. Mum expects me to
placate her with service, to avoid yet please her. This is her
game. Left alone, I clear the table; jams to the cupboard, milk and
butter to the fridge and dishes stacked by the sink. I wash and
rinse, squeeze the dish mop, and wipe with the rather seedy looking
dishcloth. After tending the stove, I close it down to smoulder
until afternoon teatime. I have a repertoire of chores from which
to choose. There is the ironing mum started, carpets to sweep,
floors to dust and drains that need flushing. I take a straw broom
to the back veranda, and then give the drain a hosing. Water
carries a piece of cut grass down the brick-lined channel, passed
the sandpit. I admire Chris’s freeway overpass. He has used his toy
truck to transport fresh sand to his construction site. A yellow
grader waits nearby. My bucket lies discarded where I dropped it.
What an age ago it seems. As I dig the broom into the corners to
loosening scum I wonder how Chris gets off so easily from these
situations. He just disappears and mum seems lets him off the hook.
Well, most of the time. She was a bit shirty at lunch today. That
eases my hurt. My impatient sweeping frightens a blackbird. It
scurries off in a blur of feathers and twittering. Having completed
my tasks without scrutiny or supervision, I am grateful to leave
the house where mum now lies down. I head off for a bike ride.
Tension lifts after a few laps. Chris is in the workshop with the
wireless blaring. The ute is missing. On the third lap, I pull over
near a row of old cypresses and pines near the driveway gate, and
prop my bike against a fence post. Climbing through the wires, I
enter the horse paddock. There are two ponies now, Mitzi and Tubby,
and they graze near a row of eucalypts dad planted a few years
earlier. These road side trees have been here for half a century.
Beneath them are several piles of hewn limbs, harvested from winter
squalls. An old, squatting cypress fills the corner of the paddock.
Its huge trunk is thick and low, and sprouts sturdy branches dense
with foliage, spreading into a wide canopy. There is a scar where a
heavy limb has been cut away. I use this as a first step and, with
a few easy stretches, reach the broad fork, almost nine feet up.
Here, three branches spread wide. In the space they create, decades
of leaf matter has filled the creases, creating an even floor. I
sit back, and study the space. There is ample room and support for
a platform; a perfect place for a tree house. I feel a knot of
anticipation, eagerness to begin immediately. But, I need sturdy
timber for joists and must ask dad for permission to use his timber
and tools. Already I have some discarded fence posts in mind. As I
sit back, basking in the contentment of my plans, I envisage a
place of my own: with walls, windows, floor, roof and door. Perhaps
even steps to the ground. Already it feels safe and cosy. While mum
rests, I pick a small bunch of picatees from the garden and arrange
them in a tiny vase, placing it on a tray beside a steaming cup of
tea and a biscuit. This is my peace offering. I carry it carefully
up the hallway, with fluid, even steps, so as not to make the cup
and saucer rattle and spoil the surprise. I peep through the crack
in the doorway to see if mum is awake, then creep forward. As
expected, our eyes meet and the offering is accepted. I wait while
she readies herself, propping up on pillows. Then I place the tray
on her lap. She looks up with a faint smile. ‘Thank you, dear.’ Her
voice is thick with sleep, and her hair is in disarray. She lifts
the vase of picatees, inhaling their fragrance of cloves. She tells
me they remind her of her Welsh heritage. The blinds are drawn
against daytime glare, and the curtains hum and sigh, just as I
remember them from infancy. The room smells of mum, of sleep, of
powder and perfume, all equally familiar. Mum crunches the biscuit
to one side of her mouth, and sips her tea. It’s not hot enough, I
know, but it doesn’t matter today: it the gesture that matters. She
rests back against her pillows and I sit down on the bed, relieved
that the worst is over, for I know the ritual. ‘What have you been
up to, dear?’ she inquires, as if nothing has happened. ‘Just
climbing trees,’ I reply, not mentioning the cleaning. ‘And where’s
Chris?’ ‘In the workshop.’ Mum sips her tea and takes a second bite
from her biscuit. ‘Thank you for the tea, dear. And you know I love
these flowers, don’t you?’ ‘Mmm. I love them myself, mum.’ I answer
truthfully. We both undertand what she’s trying to say. ‘Has dad
come in for afternoon tea?’ she asks. ‘Yes. He was taking his boots
off as I came up the hall.’ A pause follows. This part is always
tricky. ‘Mum, I’m sorry about this morning. We didn’t mean to upset
you.’ ‘I know, dear. I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean what I said
either. I was just very angry. I haven’t been sleeping well and was
a bit tired this morning. Your bickering does too much sometimes.’
‘I know. I’ve been thinking about that. Perhaps we should both
choose a different place to play in.’ ‘Perhaps you’re right. I just
wish you got on better.’ ‘Me too.’ I get up, leaving mum to her
thoughtful silence. But she stops me. ‘Jo. We’ve decided to send
Chris to boarding school next year. Dad and I talked it over and we
agree it will be for the best. There’s just not enough to occupy
him on the farm.’ I’m not surprised by this for I spotted a booklet
about Geelong College in a bundle of papers beside the kitchen
wireless. ‘And you’ve told Chris?’ ‘Yes. He’s agreed to attend an
interview. We’ve arranged an appointment with the principal and
housemaster.’ ‘Does he want to go there?’ ‘I think so, yes. A
couple of his friends start next year, too.’ ‘Mmm. That makes a
difference. There’ll be lots of organising, then? Uniforms, I
suppose.’ ‘That’ll come later, when the interviews are done. And I
think it is something you need to consider as well.’ ‘What!
Boarding school?’ I’m startled. ‘Why should I go? ‘Because it’ll
give you a better start in life, dear. You’ll mix with better
girls; opportunities you won’t get in Thalong.’ ‘Better girls.
What’s wrong with the girls at my school?’ ‘Nothing’s wrong with
them dear, it’s just that so many of them are farm girls who’ll
inherit lives like their mums. And I want more for you. I want you
to get a good start, a better education, that’s all.’ She smiles,
trying to soften her words and sweeten the criticism. I can’t argue
with her, for fear of upsetting her again. ‘Okay. I’ll think about
it. But I’m attending Thalong High to start with.’ I can’t imagine
boarding school at any age. It ranks little higher than going to
jail. ‘Which school are you thinking of?’ ‘Carandon. That’s where I
used to teach, remember?’ ‘Where that?’ ‘Ballarat.’ ‘That cold
hole! I don’t want to live in Ballarat, mum. It’s freezing.’ ‘We’ll
see, then.’ She smiles, handing me her tray. The Dismissal. ‘Well,
I’ve something to think about, then.’ I balance the tray, placing
the picatees on mum’s dressing table. ‘Thank you, dear. They look
lovely.’ Another round of chores follows, providing me with time to
think. Boarding school. Humph! Mum can be as snobby as she likes
around other people, but I’m stuffed if I’m going to play that
stupid game, too! I snatch the bucket of kitchen scraps and set off
to feed the chooks and gather the eggs. One is still warm. Upon my
return to the kitchen, mum instructs me to fetch some silver beet
leaves from the vegetable garden and gather an armful of apples
from the storage shelf in the workshop. Chris isn’t there, anymore.
Probably helping dad with milking. Mum and I prepare dinner.
Conversation is a minefield and I am wary. Anything may be
construed as disagreeable or lacking in contrition. After the
dishes, I flee, distrustful of my anger. I ride furiously up and
down the driveway, crossing to the road with reckless speed,
turning tight and hurtling back down the track. The effort and
exhilaration drain my frustrations away. I relish the silence of
dusk, sitting back on the bike seat with my arms outstretched like
wings, and drinking in the gathering stars. I feel calm now, in
control, plotting around mum’s plans. I rest my bike at the fence,
discard my boots and enter the house. The kitchen is filled with
the warm sweetness of stewed apples and cloves. ******