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TREE HOUSE

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

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

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

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

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

He smiles, pleased that I understand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SACRED & PROFANE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Not as far as I know.’

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

* * *

image

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Beauty,’ says Nick.

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

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

‘Can’t feel a thing,’ I exclaim.

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

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

‘What?’

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

‘I do?’

He kneels down and Husso bounds in to help.

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

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

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

‘How are you going?’ He startles us.

‘Nothing yet, dad,’ says Nick.

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

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

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

He reaches down, groping as I had done.

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

‘Maybe the neighbours have some,’ I suggest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hoi! Over here!’

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

I remain as the others return to the ute.

‘Coming Jo?’ dad calls.

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

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

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

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

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

Mum and dad turn to see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod. ‘It wee’d on me.’

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

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

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

‘Not humans, no. Only rabbits.’

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

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

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

Mum places the box on the hearth.

‘Perhaps in the orchard,’ he suggests.

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

Everyone smiles and a respectful silence descends.

*****

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

* * * * *

THE EGYPTIAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I glare at her.

‘You know that, dear.’

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

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

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

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

‘Ttaa!’ I spit disdainfully as she persists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But his name, dad?’

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

‘Probably not,’ I admit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks dad!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a long pause.

‘So?’ she persists. ‘Phone him.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hello?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘So what number did you want?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks.’

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

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

‘So..? Maybe he’ll ring one day.’

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

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

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

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

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

I hand him the gift. ‘What is this?’

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

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

Finally, ‘Thank you. Truly.’

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

‘No.’ He smiles shyly. ‘Nor you?’

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

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

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

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

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

PORT FAIRY

PORT FAIRY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

WAVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad says nothing more for a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bush Camp

Bush Camp

Woke up one morning to the sound of nothing and the street lights still on. Began to wonder where everyone was and whether I was one of the privileged ones who’d been left behind:

MARS

Who’s gonna turn the lights off
Now that you’ve all gone to Mars.
The city stores are empty, there’s
No people, trains or cars.
And all across the country side
It’s quiet and dark and still;
The houses are deserted,
Farms idle and untilled.

It’s like the world’s assembled
At a giant footy game –
Left all the houses empty,
And the roads, streets and plains.
Yet even in broad daylight,
Through all the sun and rain,
Nobody’s turned the lights off –
The whole country’s all the same.

The air is clear this morning
And the silence seems so stark.
If I’d a car up Main Street now,
I’d get an easy park,
Cos all the roads are empty
And all the freeways clear.
Everyone’s left home for Mars
And left me standing here.

Maybe I was comatose,
Cos no-one told me why
They’d leave their house and
Neighbourhood and take off to the sky.
There’s no news on the radio,
Just static far and wide,
And streets lights burn so brightly
All across the country side.

And all across the nation
And all around the world
The lights are burning everywhere,
And all the flags unfurled.
And stuck on many windows
Are these quickly scribbled signs:
“We’ve gone to Mars, so help your self
To anything you find.”

The rivers are all flooded
With the rising of the tides,
And gaping holes across the land
Have wrecked the countryside.
The local dams are empty
And it hasn’t rained in years,
And sand creeps in from way out west
As the forest disappears.

Above, the skies are empty –
No satellites or planes,
And the skyline of the city
Bristles aerials and cranes.
But all the shops are empty
And offices are bare.
Seems, everyone has gone to Mars
To dredge the riches there.

There’s nothing left for taking,
It’s all been packed away.
And the sun creates a furnace
On these empty streets today.
A scrawny cat is searching
In the rubbish for a feed.
You think they’d take their cats and dogs,
Diseases, toads and weeds.

No sign of devastation;
No wars or battle zones.
The whole world’s fallen silent now,
And bleak as dried up bones.
They’ve taken everything that moves:
The oil wells are dry,
The metals and the minerals,
Gone with them to the sky.

So who will turn the lights off, now
That everybody’s gone?
It seems a waste to let them burn
If no-one wants them on.
I look up at the stars and see
A planet rising, red,
And wonder what you’re doing there:
Perhaps you’re even dead.

But, why in such a hurry,
And with all the cities bare,
As oceans lap the mezzanines,
And flotsam floating there?
And why desert the countryside
And miss the Devil’s dance?
‘Hope you’ve two of everything
While there was still a chance.’

You’ve left ships in the harbour
And buildings straight and tall,
And aircraft in the hangars
And rubbish in the mall. There’s
So much you’ve forgotten:
And I wonder how it feels:
Surrendering this Paradise –
The real estate and deals.

A few of us stayed sleeping
As you quietly flew away.
We live here quite contentedly
Like in the good old days.
And only one thing bothers us
On bedding down at night:
Who will turn the lights off
Now that you have taken flight?

We all use fire to see with
And we don’t need lights to read.
We lived this way for centuries
Before you crossed the sea.
We don’t use coal or iron ore
For what we need to do,
So someone find the bloody switch –
Because light’s ruining the view.

You’ve left your polystyrene cups
And paper, brass and steel.
Your bauxite and plutonium
Won’t cook an evening meal.
As I sit here by the campfire
With a steaming cup of tea,
I wonder why you bothered
For three wasted centuries.

Seems such a way to travel
To dig holes and farm the land,
And pile up Leggo buildings
With your clever brains and hands.
Barely here, and gone again,
To start on frontiers new:
Digging holes and farming Mars –
That strange stuff you folks do.

So who will turn the lights off now?
They’re running up a tab.
We’ve starlight in abundance,
And the lights will drive us mad.
Who forgot to throw the switch
That makes the cities glow?
I’m asking you to ask someone
Who knows someone who knows.

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.

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.