Mum hates housework and employs women to do it for her. Denise was one of them. She was only fourteen when she came to stay, with her piano accordion. But she seemed so much older to me and ever since her departure, I have longed to play a musical instrument of my own. Other than the school recorder, and improvisations on a pair of forty-four gallon drums near the wide gate, the only real instrument I’ve attempted is mum’s upright grand piano. She teaches me to play using kindergarten songs, and these make the lessons disappointing. But, to be honest, I have difficulty learning anything with mum as a teacher. She leaves me flustered, unable to concentrate, and fearful that her irritation might induce one of her turns. I haven’t done my piano practice for months. Lessons have stopped.

Mum’s power games leave residual anger: I get cranky, and ponder dark places and questions. Why are my parents the same age as my friends’ grandparents? Why, after such a fuss about adoption, does mum toy with me as if I’m made from rubber bands? As my anger grows, so too does a desire to hurt back. But I am the only one with whom I can be angry. Self-administered beatings and endurance activities soothe the flushes of fury, the impatience of helplessness. Mum rarely asks about the bruises and swellings, blithely accepting my explanations. After all, she reflects, with so much time outdoors I must inevitably take occasional spills.

I live a sheltered existence on the farm, but there is no shortage of music. From the symphonies, operas and concertos that have drifted into my bassinette in infancy, to pop music on my radio and the miracle of television, my life is steeped in melodies and pictures. While my friends are distracted by hours television, I rely on the radio for new songs and old favourites. Songs enable me expression, ways to remember the pain and wonders of my life in a language both ample and transportable. Soggy days sparkle with the addition of lyrics and I can choreograph menial chores to folk songs and rhythm and blues, while rock and roll provides the gears my bike lacks.

When Nick returns home for the school holidays he brings albums by Creedence, The Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix, and The Shadows. And I invest my own savings on records: The Seekers, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, and The Mamas and the Papas. At school I gather with friends to sing our favourites. Truly, music creates the kind of happiness nothing can extinguish.

Catchy songs by Simon and Garfunkel, Normie Rowe and The Monkeys provide a soundtrack to my busyness, while the political lyrics of Guthrie, Dylan, Eric Burdon and Joan Baez address issues of war and global unrest. For me, the potency of their songs is greater than any editorial in a newspaper, or TV bulletin.

Every weekend I ride in to town to buy a copy of a British magazine called Fab 208. Each issue features full-page, coloured pictures of my favourite artists and groups, and has articles about bands, new sounds and tours. I’ve pinned many of them to my walls, engulfing half the room with faces of my idols. Now the National Geographics rest unopened in dusty cupboards and corners.

While music cultivates my world, reading provides the means of exploring it. Teachers feed my eclectic appetite with weedy books by European and American radicals and, at lunchtimes, I peruse Life magazines, learning of Haight-Ashbury’s flower power, of free love communes, LSD and fashion. At last I have found reason to sew and, for the first time ever, make and wear clothes I like.

My curiosity bounds as eagerly as Husso. I’ve just read a novel about a heroin addict, and I want to know what it means to feel high. With my parents in bed, I locate a jar of ingredients from the pantry cupboard, and with a teaspoon, matches and candle, head out to the privacy of the laundry. After preparing the mixture, I clean up all evidence, grab an aspirin, and return to my room. Swallowing the concoction is the hardest part. It is bitter, and with a texture that sets me gagging. I chase the sludge down with a glass of milk, using the last of it to swish ghastly dregs from my mouth. God, I think. That guy must be desperate.

After a quarter of an hour I am convinced nothing will happen. I brush my teeth and get into bed as usual. But just on the brink of sleep, I detect a squirming dizziness. I attribute this to nerves or my imagination, turn over and go to sleep, quite unaware of the hell that awaits me.

I wake in shock, the room spinning violently. I have no balance and convulsions knot my stomach, legs and jaw. It’s hard to breathe and I’m scared. So terribly scared. Upon managing to turn on the bedside light, I slip out of bed, clinging to the sides in order to steady myself. The room reels and I am terrified of what else may happen. I grope my way up the hall, at last reaching my parents’ room where I call to mum, making only airy croaks.

I try again.
‘Mum! …mum!’ I’m determined to make some sound. Finally the reedy whispers wake her. She panics at the sight of me doubled up and shaking, racked as if cold.
‘What’s wrong?’ She reaches for my pyjamas. They’re soaked. ‘Have you wet yourself?’
‘No.’ My teeth chatter. ‘I don’t think so. I just feel really weird, sick. I can’t stop shaking.’

Donning her dressing gown, she leads me back to my room. ‘Hop back into bed and I’ll get more blankets. You’re freezing.’ She returns. ‘Have you been sick?’
‘No. I was fine at bedtime. I just woke like this.’ It’s difficult to talk with cramps racking my stomach.

Mum spreads two extra blankets over me and slips a hot water bottle in at my feet, tucking me in. Once I’m settled, she climbs into the spare bed and leaves the light on. I sleep fitfully, aware my mind is stretching in peculiar ways. More tremors leave me frightened. I can’t get warm and am convinced I am going to die.

In the morning mum wants to take me to the doctor. But because I am afraid to tell her what I’ve done, I insist: ‘A day in bed should fix it. Must have been something I ate.’

It takes two days for the shaking to subside, and provides ample time for me to reflect on how things may have gone, how such a simple mixture could be so insidious. Yet, while the experience has answered some of my questions, it creates more, failing to allay my desire for experimentation. Something has escaped from my cage and prowls, hungry to know more.


Each morning, before walking to the gate to catch the school bus, I pick a flower. Picatees are my favourite: the clove-scented ones mum likes. I pin the bloom to my jumper like a badge and wear it to school. Occasionally teachers remind me that it’s not part of my school uniform, but never instruct me to remove them. Flower power blooms and soon my classmates catch the vibe. We express our adopted culture in hippie artwork: doodles, decorous letters and posters and our speech is sprinkled with new phrases: cool and man and far out.

Few venture further into hippydom with regional conservatism constraining youthful expression. Any boys growing Beatle hairstyles are pigeonholed with hippies, petty criminals or druggies. But I’m far beyond caring what people think. The door is open and I’m eager to experience the possibilities of this new age culture, to seek my own individuality, a narrative, even notoriety.

I wear a broken cross on a chain, my first purchase from the new surf shop in Warrnambool. It represents my protest against war and conservatism, reflecting my hippie status. The symbol also appears on my schoolwork. My choice of pacifism is well informed, with Nick and his friends turning eighteen and eligible for call up as army conscripts and candidates for the carnage in Vietnam.

With the release of Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, I rise to the peak of my wave, cycling into town especially to pick up my copy. I play it loud, over and over on dad’s radiogram. Mum discovers me dancing wildly in the sitting room, oblivious to her protests about noise. I leave the house to ride, replicating the songs in my head.

* * *
There are no surprises about my Christmas present. It has been sitting on a bed in the spare room since September, following a droll visit to see Nick at boarding school. The day had promised to be long and tiresome, made more troubling by the possibility that my shameful congruence with Nick in the haystack, along with his sordid embellishments of it, was common knowledge among his friends.

But the day improves when, unannounced, we head for the city shops, straight to the biggest music store outside of Melbourne.

Mum makes enquiries of a young salesman who leads us to straight to the stringed section. There, with his help, my parents select a classical guitar. I watch the transaction in astonishment. The salesman demonstrates the range of my instrument, playing a Spanish piece I recognise. Rich, mellow phrases rise as his fingers straddle and dance over strings with the same strength. Passion and agility with which I climb trees. I want this artfulness for myself.

On Christmas morning the guitar sits at the foot of the tinselled tree, dwarfing every other gift there. Attached to the box is a large envelope. As is my preference, I take my gifts ‘from Santa’ to my room in order to open them quietly and privately. There I can concentrate, without parental scrutiny: the pressure to utter oh’s of feigned delight for the assembled family. Other gifts remain at the tree until after Christmas dinner.

I open the card first. ‘To dear Joanna,’ it reads, in mum’s round hand. ‘We want to you to have something special because you have done so well at school. Merry Christmas dear, and a Happy New Year too! Much love from Mum and Dad.’
So. A reward. Not from Santa.

Peeling sticky tape off wrapping paper is not something one hurries. It requires patience, much like untangling fishing line or sewing thread. And receiving a gift requires ample time for savouring, like a good meal. First one must look at the gift, appreciate its over-all presentation, its weight and shape. Then the components are identified, their qualities admired: their colour, texture and smell. Finally the gift must be possessed, not just held but embraced, for each part reveals a piece of the true nature of the object and the secrets of the gifted.

With wrapping paper neatly folded, I return to the cardboard box. It is stuck down either side, but the card is torn where someone has lifted the narrow end to peep inside – I am the unashamed culprit. I already know what smells lie inside, the shade and lustre of the wood, its grain and markings.

Freeing the tape, I raise the oblong lid for the first time, and slip the instrument out of its polythene bag. It is awkward to lift, quite heavy in fact, and I’m not quite sure of the right way to hold it. Finally, grasping it by the neck, I permit gravity to settle the matter and, from where the guitar nestles comfortably in my lap, I admire the wood grain beneath its flawless coats of varnish. A strong odour rises; sharp, gluey and resinous, wafting from the hollows.

The six strings hover, drawn tight across the soundbox by mechanisms beyond the neck. Three of the strings are nylon, like fishing line, and the others are wrapped in fine silver wire, much like piano strings. Beneath them the dark fingerboard is marked by frets and several spots of mother-of-pearl. Are they for ornamentation or have they a purpose? I wonder.

I brush my thumb across each string, watching them vibrate and listening to the vibrato ring. I can feel the notes through the soundbox, seeping into my chest and legs, intimately startling and present. My attempts at melody are disappointing: dull sounds from flat notes.

I take up the instrument and hold it properly, as I’ve seen Art Garfunkel do, and place my fingers in patterns on the fingerboard. I know about chords from piano lessons, where they seem much easier. My knowledge fails to transpose to here, and my attempts at strumming end in tangled-sounds.

Mum stands at the door beaming at me. ‘What do you think, dear?’ She speaks in her thick voice, one rarely used now.
‘I’m not sure what to do,’ I tell her, obviously disappointed. ‘I don’t know what to do. I will need lessons.’
‘Of course. We know that. There’s a lady in Terang who teaches guitar. I’ll phone her in the new year. But you can work some of it out, surely?’
‘Probably. But when I try to play notes, the strings buzz. And there seems to be no system to their tuning, either. Piano keys are in a pattern and easy to identify, but this is beyond me.’

For several weeks the instrument lies untouched in the box beneath my bed: a mystery I cannot cipher, taunting and goading me to try. I watch musicians on TV variety shows, but just as I catch a clue of their technique, the picture changes.

When school resumes, mum arranges the lessons. The first is very basic and already I doubt the teacher has ever played a guitar herself. I can tell from the spines of music books, piled high on a filing cabinet, that she presumes to coach an entire orchestra. I am accompanied by her st the piano, using a book containing chord diagrams. I follow slowly, but loathe the hillbilly tunes. I long for Seekers’ and Bee Gees’ songs.

Riding into town can be difficult enough without a cumbersome instrument case that is determined to behave like a sail in the wind. Inevitably, I have enough.
‘I’m not attending lessons anymore, mum,’ I declare after the return ride. ‘She’s teaching me cowboy songs and a country and western style. That’s not what I want to learn.’
Mum doesn’t argue. ‘All right,’ she sighs. ‘You’ll just have to teach yourself, then. There’s no-one else available.’

Of course that is easier said than done. Once again, sleek in its vinyl-zipped cover, my guitar languishes under the bed. But, as Christmas nears, mum stirs me to action.
‘Honestly, Jo! If you don’t want that guitar I’ll give it to Nick.’
‘You can’t,’ I snap. ‘You gave it to me, for Christmas. You can’t take it back!’
‘Well start playing it, then,’ she replies. ‘What’s the point of having it if you can’t use it?’
I smart at this. ‘That’s not fair, mum. I’ve made a decent effort to master the bloody thing. It’s beyond me, that’s all.’

But her threat is an effective catalyst. With a good ear for music and the book to guide me, I sit at the piano, tuning and practicing the few chords I’ve mastered. Then, on Saturday morning, I ride into town. At the local electrical and music store I discover sheet music for the Bee Gees song ‘Words’. It is a lucky investment for I recognise some chords, and assemble other ones a note at a time. Finally, with my scratchy knowledge of music theory, I pick out the introduction. The break through is momentous, and confidence spills through the breach. With basics in place, I now work out chords to songs that I’ve already learned and typed up on an old Remington mum bought from school.


The magic of harmony, the blending of voices, is something I have loved since infancy. I still sit back of an evening with dad, listening to Welsh, Russian, Austrian and American choirs on the radio. Understandably it is a small step from there to the school choir where harmony overrides the drollness of traditional pieces, and contemporary songs join our repertoire.

For me, music is as plenteous as air, a language open to infinite interpretation, universal. How, I wonder, can there be so much music from all over the world, yet so little in my hometown? Other than radio, many folk know little more than the church hymns of Christmas, Easter and funerals, and all that is too solemn for me.

Nick returns early from boarding school and picks up his year at Terang High where he mixes easily. I can see his cosmopolitan style appeals to local girls, and he is the envy of his mates. His girlfriend is Beth, a senior girl at school. One evening she knocks on the door. Nick is fixing his car and she is cold and bored.

She joins us in the sitting room for supper and we learn that she sings and plays guitar. I coax her to my instrument. Her voice is strong and confident, and she has an extensive repertoire of popular folk and traditional songs. Once we get to know each other, she teaches me new chord patterns, strums and fingering, and a technique for threading songs together. Our friendship extends beyond Nick’s V8 production cars.

* * *

This year the summer holidays provide a glorious blend of surfing and family picnics in and around Port Fairy. One morning as we fish for flathead in the Moyne, I smell a flaring match, and watch Nick light a cigarette upwind from me.
‘Hey, Nick. Let me try one of those?’
‘It’ll make you sick.’ But he obliges, and helps shield my flame from the wind. ‘You gotta suck on it,’ he coaches, ‘or it won’t stay lit.’
I try.
‘Draw on it properly, into your lungs, not just yer mouth.’
After a few aborted puffs I inhale, choking on the sensation. He grins, shaking his head, and leaves me to figure it out. I clear my throat and try again, knowing what to expect this time but as I exhale, I’m startled by how much smoke comes out. The thought of that and giddiness creeps up on me, turning into a real head spin. I lie back on the jetty, groaning.
‘Warned ya.’
I stagger ashore, clammy and pale, and head for the dunes in case I spew. I sit with my head down, fighting the nausea, determined not to vomit while the cigarette withers to dangling ash between my fingers. The seediness remains with me all morning.
‘Maybe you should try menthols,’ Nick suggests. ‘They’re easier on the throat.’
I consider this as we walk across the causeway, heading home. ‘Do they cost more?’
‘Nuh. Don’t think so. Anyway, you can get smaller packs if you want.’
‘I’ll think about it.’ I’m still unable to fathom why smoking is such a big deal. Grown ups must be stupid wanting to do something that makes you feel that sick.

There’s an on-shore breeze and the waves beyond the rocks are long and perfect. I’m itching to hire a board and get out into it. After lunch, I ride to East Beach and hand sixty cents to the tanned, body-board guy.
‘Charge me up for three hours?’
He nods. I’m a regular now and, when I go over time, he doesn’t call me in anymore.

That evening Beth and her brother arrive and we decide to attend movies at the local cinema, half a block away. After the show we walk down towards the river. Nick calls in at a milk bar and buys me a small pack of menthol smokes. I sit on a pier with John, his sister and Nick. Undoing the cellophane wrapping, I sniff the minty contents. Johns hands me some matches and I light up first go, then sit back against the pylon in case I get dizzy. There’s a pause in the conversation and I realise they’re watching me. My head remains clear and I become more confident, watching the smoke swirl, silver in the starlight. Beth slides over and teaches me how to blow smoke rings. It leaves an unpleasant bitterness in my mouth, but looks spectacular.

* * *

With more time on her hands, mum becomes determined to have me socialise. Again I resist, and she is aware of how closed I am towards her: sullen round the house, lacking affection or spontaneity. Troubled and hoping to gain some insight, she makes an appointment for me to see her psychiatrist in Melbourne. I sit out in the corridor while the doctor spends much of my consultation chatting to mum. It’s an unsettling feeling. The mumbling voices fill me with disquiet.

Finally the door opens and mum summons me in, before stepping outside to wait. The doctor stands, introducing himself, and invites me to settle back in a chair. He asks questions about arithmetic, general knowledge, what games and sports I play, about my friends, whether I like school. My answers are short and uncomfortable. It’s hard to warm to talking about yourself to a stranger. With that, I’m dismissed. Returning to the corridor I am left to surmise my answers must adequate. Mum goes back in and the mumbling resumes. Apparently he doesn’t share her concerns.

‘He thinks you’re going through a stage,’ she informs me on the way to lunch. But her socialising campaign intensifies, with a rash of invitations arranged with parents of my school mates, resulting in sleepovers. But her taste in friends is not mine, and I remain resentful of her manipulation and interference. This leads to frustration which I take out on my guests, deserting and observing them from perches in a dozen trees, with only pity at their helplessness. Most of the kids are townies, and have no idea what to do on a farm. It’s a cruel trick I play, and causes trouble at school. I’m ashamed of it afterwards, realising we are pawns in mum’s games.

‘Take her for a horse ride,’ mum suggests for my next guest. ‘Or a walk to the lake.’
‘She’s a townie, mum. She doesn’t like mud on her good runners. And don’t suggest horse-riding because I’m not riding that treacherous bloody pony again.’
‘Couldn’t you lead her round the paddock?’
‘I’m not going to lead her anywhere. She’s used to playing basketball, dressing up, swapping cards and stuff. She’s not interested in what I do, and her stuff is boring, too.’

Mum over-scrubs a potato, irritated at my stubbornness. She doesn’t realise how different I am, or how content I feel with my own company.
‘I’m not an entertainer, mum. Everything I do leaves them bewildered, and that’s not fair on them or me. They’re not confident climbing trees, they don’t have the stamina to walk round the lake – it’s three miles you know.’ She doesn’t know because she’s never walked it. ‘And as for archery, sitting in the middle of paddocks to hunt, or stuck up a tree, you can’t blame them for wanting to go home.

Finally she agrees to leave invitations to me. ‘It’s something I should do my own way. And when I’m ready, not with you pushing me.’

Few sleepovers follow, and occasional invitations to stay with friends. Yet I enjoy seeing how they live. Their modern homes are small and pokey, with gardens a stone’s throw long, but at least they have all the amenities of town and it’s an easy walk to school. They talk late, mostly about sex and boys, or clothes, movies stars, bands and school gossip – no wonder they don’t wake up till halfway through the morning. One group of friends agree to a walk across town with me but balk when they realise I mean literally across town: across the lake. Often I find their parents more interesting to talk to.

But quietude and home are what I love most. Nick is out most of the time, and I avoid mum’s demands by rising early, finishing my chores and maintaining neutrality. Her focus is more on Nick and his antics, and there are few arguments with me. I can only suspect she assumes her loneliness is like mine.

A dose of bronchitis has kept me in bed for almost a week. I notice mum is less manipulative when I am sick, more like her old self. I guess my dependence provides an opportunity to nurture and care and the truce is mutual. After lunch I listen to pop-music, writing lyrics to the new songs and then chord them on my guitar. Following temperature checks, afternoon tea arrives on a tray, with more cough mixture. Once the tray is clear, I entertain myself drawing aeroplanes, houses, and trees and, with scissors, homemade clag and old pop magazines, I create a collages. Mum offers a candid critique of my work.
‘That gum tree doesn’t look real,’ she points out.
I’m not in the mood for criticism. ‘Why?’
‘Gum leaves don’t grow like that. They hang down. Look.’ She points out my window. ‘And the trunk doesn’t sit on the ground, it grows out from it.’ And of my next effort: ‘The house has no veranda, and the roof is wrong.’

The comments are deflating, and wither my desire to draw. I assume she does it because she’s a school teacher, instinctively correcting mistakes, but I wonder how many children’s bright and uninhibited creations she’s pulled to pieces, and how much talent she’s quashed with her frank appraisals. She returns moments later with an art book of charcoal sketches and water colours of the Australian bush. I agree my drawings are primitive in comparison.
She admires a model aeroplane I’ve made from plasticine. She likes the detail: how there are passengers inside, and suitcases that open to reveal articles of clothing; and a cockpit with console instruments. I’ve even given the pilot a parachute. Mum says it’s intriguing.
‘Look,’ she chuckles, delighted. ‘There are socks and a handkerchief. You have a real gift with plasticine.’ She places a glass of orange juice beside my creation.
I smile in thanks. ‘It’s good because it’s kid’s stuff,’ I mutter. She doesn’t seem to notice the sarcasm.

Mary McQueen is an old school chum of mum’s, and an artist. She specialises in abstracts and lithographs which I find unappealing. Mary enjoys an enviable lifestyle, moving freely in international art circles, and teaching at RMIT. We’ve stayed with her a couple of times while mum attends her appointments with specialists. Mary’s studio fascinates me, but I am herded out with stern warnings. She has little patience with kids about, although she’s widowed with grown children of her own.

One spring, when Mary comes to stay with us on the farm, we drive out to Tower Hill Cemetery for some sketching. I bring my own materials, determined to improve my technique, learning from Mary. Using charcoal, I make scratchy sketches of statuary while Mary works with pastels and soft, coloured pencils which I gather are very expensive. Watching her work, I sense her irritation. She deflects my questions and withholds even the most casual tuition.

Next morning she asks me to sit on the back veranda while she sketches me in charcoal. She explains that she is taking notes that will become a finished work back at her studio. Later, after Mary has returned home, mum confides that Mary says I can’t draw and will never be an artist. Naturally I am wounded, but also puzzled, as her opinion contradicts my school results in art: my best subject this year. I wonder if they are deliberately putting me down. Fortunately it will take more than one appraisal to discourage my attempts at self-expression, of interpreting my world and my feelings. I know good art from bad; the former rings with truth in a way that cannot be objective. Eventually Mary sends mum a copy of a lithograph entitled ‘A Farmer’s Daughter’. Surrounding my stylised face are farm icons and Mt Noorat. I regard it with disappointment.

Inspired by Mary’s visits, mum executes decorative, brushwork designs on the bellies of glazed pots, vases and plates. Most are clumsy, but there some fine pieces among them. Open books clutter the laundry table, a tableau of her inspiration: Japanese calligraphy, ink-washed paintings, and Chinese prints. After school I watch her throw pots. Sometimes I suggest a shape I like and she produces one or two, but always returns to seemingly ungainly work, disproportionate and heavy-looking. Inevitably she agrees to teach me, but insists I learn from scratch, first preparing the clay and constructing coil pots and slab plates. One day when she is away I try throwing a pot on the wheel and it is easy for me. My hands seem to transpose ideas and I produce some elegant vases.
Mum is encouraging: ‘You’re good with your hands, Jo.’

She has a gas kiln constructed on the back veranda and there are problems fine-tuning it. But she produces some beautiful pieces and offers them as gifts. I learn to stack the kiln, too, and to monitor the firing through peep holes, where rows of ceramic cones indicate temperature for the duration of the process. The thundering noise, the hissing, white heat frighten me, but the thrill of holding my own vases is assurance that I must press on, determined to find the artist inside of me.

Who says the media has no long term effect on children? From fairy stories of children lost in forests to the disappearance of Harold Holt, such stories, whether news or entertainment, had a profound effect on me.

Early into my second year at Terang High, a media-frenzy builds around the pending execution of a jail escapee, guilty of murder. Each evening the future of Ronald Ryan is discussed graphically in homes around the nation. As the day of execution approaches, community protest and opposition swells. Newspaper editorials declare the barbarity of capital punishment, yet their banners count down the days of Ryan’s life. The macabre issue draws lively debate in our classroom and I have even written about it. I bought myself a diary this year. Now there is only one entry: on the second of February, the day Ryan is hanged.
While capital punishment will soon be outlawed, this is no longer my dilemma. I feel I am part of the indecision that stayed Ryan’s execution, that I share responsibility for sending him to the gallows. Repugnance flows through me like venom, and grief creeps into my extremities, threatening to suffocate me.
On the day of execution I begin swimming in earnestness, seeking a way across the chasm of guilt over which I feel suspended. I continue this daily purge until the pool closes for winter: swimming for Ryan, for my indecision, and to reach a certain numbness I am sure lies somewhere beyond my pain. After forty laps I stagger drunkenly to the change room, still in a trance, and only fully conscious after the ride home.


Through winter I must find other ways to overcome my guilt. Initially bike rides are sufficient: completing dozens of laps; sprinting until my thighs ache and my lungs burn.

By spring I have forgotten about Ryan. Now I ride for pleasure: pushing my limits, sensing new boundaries and the lure of pain itself. I hunger to challenge the ultimate opponent: myself against the clock.


Until now I have taken little interest in physical education at school. The whole concept of team competition seems ludicrous to me, totally unrelated to fun – even after a stirring lecture about team spirit from my teacher. Of what use is a ball to me in real life? But, to appease the critics, I attend selection try-outs for the annual inter-school sports day and begin training. I’m not built for sprinting, preferring the marching squad, ball games, javelin, and the long and high jump events.

However, the first cross-country run is a challenge I feel unequal to. This annual event requires all students to complete a five-mile circuit through and around the town. Waiting in my group at the start line, I have already braced myself for defeat. From the first step I’m left well behind, and settle down to jog. I will finish eventually, and that will be sufficient to satisfy my sports teacher. But near the half way mark I catch up with stragglers, tired from their initial sprint. I have found an easy rhythm between my heartbeat and breathing, much like when I’m swimming, and soon pass more kids. No wonder they’re exhausted, I think. A warm day and few water stops. While for me these conditions are easy: the heat and thirst are part of my long bike rides and archery games.

On the far side of the lake, I begin to wonder, to suspect even, that there is something wrong. It’s only half way and yet contestants are falling like winded ducks. Perhaps I’ve taken a short cut by mistake? It’s hard for me to believe what is happening.
On a bike ride, or in the pool, I’d be ready for a sprint now, so I let go, and feel a familiar wave of energy welling up. My feet are lighter and my legs like springs. I overtake other competitors in a blur.
Some of them are calling to my back, jeering: ‘Hey fatso! You must have cheated.’
My face flushes, smiling at the compliment, and I wipe the sweat from my eyelids.

Passing the cemetery and still barely puffing, I approach a plantation adjacent to the school. The finish line is in sight. I lean into my stride, feet pounding along the gravel shoulder. As I turn in at the school driveway, cheering pikers and teachers crowd the finish line. I am puffing now, hands grabbing pockets of air as my legs stretch to cover the remaining yards.
Beyond my roaring ears and pounding heart I hear voices calling my name and, within me, there is the release I have waited so longed for. Crossing the line, they all crowd in, incredulous that one of the fat kids, a girl no less, has finished so well.
‘You’re the second back in your whole group,’ declares a teacher at my shoulder. She writes my name on a clipboard. ‘Well, done. Go and have a drink.’

Still gasping, I’m conscious I’m not a pretty sight. My matted hair is streaming sweat, my arms and legs are blotched and pink under my unflattering red sports tunic. But I walk proudly to the drink fountains and burying my face beneath the cool stream, drinking long draughts. At last, I think. At last, I have done something real, something that’s not pretty, not literary or artsy. This is something gutsy and brave and physical. Illusive pieces of the puzzle have slipped into place and all the pain and grief dissipates.

With the success and confidence of my endurance run, I add jogging to my daily schedule, donning tennis shoes as dusk covers the cycling circuit. Dad says it’s a mile to our neighbour’s gateway, and that makes two miles each time I cross the cattle grid. I sprint up the rise, checking my watch to ensure seconds have been shaved from yesterday. Then, to cool down, ride my bike with mind content and body tired, ready for a shower and sleep.

The pool reopens in late spring. I resume laps, still keeping a balance of cycling, running and swimming.

* * *

‘It’s going to be a hot summer, a stinking Christmas,’ dad announces over the top of his newspaper. True to his word, the hay harvest is ready by my last day of school.

Saturday dawns, a typical scorcher, the kind of day that draws families to the beach, seeking relief. But by afternoon a northerly will cut the surf to ribbons and lift the sand into willie-willies. Dad says there’s a low in the Bight. I picture its waves rolling high up beaches, tearing seaweed from the reefs, dredging it over rocks and up the beaches to the foot of the dunes.

After my summer-morning vigil of watching the sun rise, I unleash Husso and open the wide gate, heading down to turn hay bales. These must be loaded and stacked before the weather breaks. The wind returns, a dry, turgid stream of air that pulses, tugging at my shirt.

After breakfast I prepare iced drinks for the carting, and grab my shabby bandana, wetting it under the laundry tap and wrapping it round my neck.
‘Only two loads left, I reckon,’ says Nick, pummelling his toast. His hands are big now and this habit seems quaint.
Dad agrees. ‘The glass is falling already. Could be a cool change by tonight.’
Mum sighs. ‘Oh, I do hope so. There’s no fun preparing Christmas in this fug.’

We set off with the tractor and trailer, me opening gates while Nick drives. Dad leans on the rail and studies the bleached sky, his towelling hat-brim flicking back and forth in the wind. Brown spots fleck the backs of his coarse, tanned arms as he steadies the drink billy.

While the men fit the loader onto the tractor, I carry the tinkling billy and cups to the shade of the two pine trees. Surging wind sighs through their pine needles, so dry it parches my nostrils.

I drive while the men load: two easy trips and all stacked by lunchtime. Before lunch the mercury has risen to one hundred degrees, and the day is far from over. We head to the house for lunch, the wind buffeting our backs. Radio news blares as mum slices cold lamb onto our plates. We add fresh salad, and spread jam and cream over slices of bread.
‘What are you two doing about the Christmas tree this year,’ dad asks.
Nick answers first. ‘Thought we might set up that old tree, and use those decorations from up in the linen press.’
‘Oh. You’ve been up there, have you?’ Dad’s not really surprised, just amused we’ve taken so long to discover a family secrets.
‘Yeah. There’s a Santa Claus suit and other costumes up there, too.’ I add, confirming my complicity.
‘Be careful with those,’ mum warns. ‘They belonged to Granny Clarke and grandad! And don’t forget the angel chimes.’ They’ve become a favourite part of our Christmas table setting.

Late in the afternoon we ride to Terang for a well-earned swim. Half a mile a way we can hear the pool is packed: the splash of boys doing dive-bombs, the squeals of toddlers and pool-side parents. Doing laps is hopeless in such a crowd so I practise underwater swimming, nosing along the floor of the pool like an eel. I wind around the legs of unsuspecting swimmers, reaching for coins, hairclips and bandaids down near the vent where the babble of voices is muffled and distorted. Spangled bodies pierce the water, and swarms of bubbles stream upward.

Exhaling through my nose, I watch my own breath, encapsulated like balls of mercury, glooping toward the surface. My skin is fizzing with tiny bubbles, caught on the hairs of my arms and legs. Mobility in the water is a sensual joy. I rise from the slimy floor to a space on the surface, floating and relaxed. While the sun stings my skin, water laps, pleasantly cool at my ears. Then someone splashes me deliberately. Nick! It’s not worth going after him. Just being a pig as usual.

I meet a couple of my friends on the grassy slope. They are lying on their towels sunbaking. It is pleasantly cool on the lush lawn. I pick at blades of grass, chewing on them. My friends discuss boys, a topic I am well and truly over.

Down at the changing rooms I locate a ten cent coin hidden in my sandal. I head to the kiosk and buy a bag of mixed lollies: milk bottles, raspberries and cream, bananas and musk sticks. When I return, my friends have left, so I sit on the cement wall and munch contentedly on my sweets, leaving a few for tomorrow. There’s no sense waiting for the crowds to thin. More families wend in through the turn styles than those going home.
I call to Nick. ‘I’m going home. It’s too crowded for swimming.’


It’s a tough ride in the head wind and I’m glad to get home for a cool drink. Draped over grandad’s wicker chair, I listen as ice tinkles in my glass, and take short, refreshing sips to make the drink last. While plain water is best for thirst quenching, iced cordial is made to last. I set my legs swinging, and as my heels brush the flank of the chair, I think of grandad.

Sunday it’s hotter still. We attend the Christmas church service, crowding in with families. I fiddle with my clothes and find new ways to fold the order of service. Back home, I help mum prepare lunch. It is too hot for the traditional roast.
‘What book did you get from Sunday school, dear?’ she asks.
‘Oh. That’s written by Johanna Sprye.’ She smiles, placing a dollop of mayonnaise on the side of each plate. ‘Your name was supposed to be Johanna, you know?’
‘Really? Why isn’t it, then?’
‘We thought it would cause spelling problems.’
‘But people can’t spell Joanna anyway. I prefer Jo.’

Once the table is cleared and dishes done, Nick and I set up the Christmas tree. With dad’s step ladder we empty the top shelves of the linen press, carefully lifting down several boxes. The larger one, the size of a suitcase, contains the collection of fancy dress costumes worn by dad and his sister when they were children.

Suddenly we hear a ‘Good Lord!’ from the sitting room and rush in to discover dad halfway out of his chair, his hand raised to hush us, and listening intently to the radio.
‘Just repeating,’ says the newsreader. ‘The prime minister of Australia, Mr Harold Holt, has been reported missing from a beach near Portsea where it is believed he was swimming. We will bring further details as they come to hand.’
We stare at each other, shocked. Our faces blank, mouths hang open in disbelief, waiting for this not to be true. Mum arrives at the door.
‘Did I hear right, Merlin? Harold Holt’s missing?’

The next bulletin reveals that the PM was swimming at a spot renown for treacherous undercurrents, and officials believe he was caught by a rip and pulled out to sea. Upon hearing this, I can bear no more. I scurry to my room, don socks and runners and slip out the front door. My head buzzes, memories of Ronald Ryan rising from some deep, dark corner of my soul, forming a tight ball in my throat. I have to get away.

At first I trudge up the bark-laden front driveway and pause to survey the road. It’s stinking hot, even under the pines, and my mouth is already dry. But heaviness drives me on. I have to do something, anything to stop the growing ache. I head down the melting bitumen towards Terang, with my back to the wind. But, instead of continuing, I turn east down the lane.

Ahead of me time hangs open. I feel driven but don’t know what to do. Glaring gravel stretches all the way to the horizon. One foot in front of the other, that’s all I can think. Keep moving. And somehow it’ll be all right. The Prime Minister is missing, not dead, and it’s not my fault. It isn’t because I lowered my guard, because I looked away for a moment. These things happen. People disappear. Swimmers drown at beaches.

Reaching the boundary end of the farm my mind registers foreign ground. I stop, dazed, still unsure what to do. I face the farm now, barely sweating, not puffing at all. I don’t want to go back there but there’s nowhere else to go. Again I trudge, one foot in front of the other and oblivious to heat or effort, I register the familiar outline of pines and the intersection ahead. I pause in their thin shade.
There’s a breathing sound: is it me, or wind through the trees? I run again, following the rhythm of someone’s footfall, all the way to the intersection and then prop, turning back to the laneway. The answer must be down there somewhere. I must have missed it.

Back into the blinding sun, the road a furnace. The Prime Minister is missing. The phrase repeats itself, over and over. I can’t stop it. I try to think over it, louder, struggling to drown the radio announcer’s voice. Yes, the Prime Minister is missing, I scream silently, and there is nothing I can do about it. Nothing I do can change it.
‘I cannot bring back someone who is missing!’

Suddenly there is stillness.

I have come to a halt and look about me, fully aware of my surroundings, of what I am doing. ‘And there is nothing I can do about it,’ I sob. ‘I have to look after me, now.’
But the Prime Minister is missing! Again the fear grips my throat. I lean forward, producing convulsive sobs and retching. I wander to the edge of the road and cross a strip of dried grass to the fence. I lean against a weathered post and weep.

After wandering through the paddocks, I arrive at the wide gate, my crying silent now, but eyes and nose still streaming. As I climb the gate my legs give way and I roll over the broad beam into the yard.

At the dairy I bend over the washroom sink and bury my mouth in streaming water, taking thirsty gulps between sobs. I bathe my face, and comb wet fingers through my hair, soothing my throbbing scalp. I am crying for myself, now. Using all those tears I’ve put aside, afraid I’ll lose my grip. I have. I have lost my grip, yet I’m still here. Still strong.

I rest on the cool room steps as a northerly buffets the dairy. Miraculous, cool drafts wash over my soaked clothes, stripping the heat from my body. My legs are smudged with dust, my arms and neck sunburned and smarting. Finally I dare to think: The Prime Minister is missing and I have a life to live, answers to find, and a way through this daily maze of contradictions.

Another rinse drains the redness from my eyes and I feel surprisingly refreshed. I head up to the house. Beyond the roof dark thunderheads gather, nudging each other upward, over horizon.

* * *

Within the last few weeks of autumn, the days have cooled. Equinoxic storms are passed and warm days queue, duplicated and mild. At dawn, dew lies heavy on leaves and drips from the veranda eaves. Soon a frosty crispness curtails my rides, leaving clear evening skies that linger in fiery sunsets, fading to long, still nights.

From the stand of elm trees, a lonely owl probes the velvety darkness: ‘mopoke … mopoke,’ and the call is answered from the void of night; drawing sounds from story book pages, and disturbing my slumber.

Slowly a light creeps into my dream, and sleep comes to a tousled end. I don’t need to open my eyes to discover what has awakened me and to ignore the summons is impossible. My body responds with a heaving sigh. I surrender and open my eyes. Without lifting my head I can already see the top of the tall, sash window. The blind glows golden, illuminated as the intrusive moon passes by, slower than the hour hand of a clock.

While I detest the way time crawls, it is the shadows at the window that fill me with dread. They are always there, whether the moon deepens them or not. I know it is irrational, a trick of grainy darkness making shadows move, animated all the more by stories of children lost in forests and hunted by evil creatures. It is enough to convince me, time and again, that there are two black bears standing tall and threatening, one either side of the window, their thick furry arms clasped across the middle of the sash, and I can see their powerful paws trembling in the dimness.

I am too afraid to climb out of bed and turn on the light. Anyway, to do so is unthinkable. Unspeakable creatures lurk in thick darkness beneath my mattress. I can’t hear them but I know they wait patiently for a sleeping hand or foot to stray out of the covers and down into their den.

My attention returns to the window. The moon casts no other shadow on the blind, only the bears. Eventually shadowy branches of the manna gum will appear as the moon sinks westward over the ridge and the lake beyond. On some nights I am lucky; heavy clouds fill the sky, covering the moon, bringing a welcome darkness and the rush of wind. Then a gentle patter of raindrops builds to a crescendo, rattling so loudly that I shiver beneath the blankets. Such storms unfailingly lull me to sleep.

At other times the moon sets further north, allowing only a slender shaft of light through the blind. It creeps across the wall, never quite reaching my bed, and rarely into my dreams. But this night is crisp and still, the sky a deep blue-black, spattered with familiar constellations and a few wispy clouds. Such early, winter nights are long, frosty and silent. No crickets sing and it’s too late for frogs or the restive twitter of birds. Occasionally a farm dog barks or a cow lows in the distance, but the moon glowers as before, its presence resting like a weight upon my chest. I resent its brightness, its indolent journey, how it pulls me up from the depths of sleep to wallow in wakefulness, just as it draws oceans to the shore.

I raise my head and sit up on my elbows, keeping the blankets tucked around me. Through the gloom I search deeper shadows for bears’ faces, but they have seen me, and close their shiny black eyes, pressing themselves against the curtains. But, still their arms remain clasped across the window. They are cunning bears, indeed.

When I first saw them I cried in fear. Mum came with a torch. I begged her to turn on the light but, when she did, the bears hid and she didn’t believe me. Yet, as soon as she switched the light off and left my room they were back, angry at my betrayal.
I lie back again, pulling the bedding up around my ears to muffle their soft growls. But I cannot slow my heartbeat or still my pulse and it rustles so noisily against my pillow. I’m sure the bears can hear it.
‘Ah!’ I sigh. Why must the moon waken me and make the bears so tall and frightening?

I close my eyes tightly and my throat aches to cry, but I will not to let the bears know I am afraid. Grandad told me animals smell fear. I won’t let the bears do that. I turn on my side. Moonlight glows brightly on the bedside table legs and polished floorboards, shadows falling darkly against the golden grain. I watch them move over joins in the boards. It would be beautiful if it weren’t so menacing. My eyes sting, tired from watching. I lift my gaze to the wardrobe, its two keyhole eyes studying me across the darkness. I stare back.

Late one afternoon there was a thunderstorm while mum sewed in the kitchen. She asked me to fetch my tartan skirt from that wardrobe, and as I approached its gaping door, a bolt of lighting split the air, filling the room with an intense white flash. Instantly the sky ripped apart, shaking the house and rattling the windows. I ran in terror, bursting into the kitchen and burrowing through a maze of chair legs to safety, surprised to find Nick there already. Another crackle followed and we remained there for the whole storm.

Dad came in from the darkness and told us lightning had struck a neighbour’s haystack, setting it ablaze. We ran after him, tumbling excitedly into the back of the ute. As he drove through the trembling evening air, we clung on, bouncing in the back. Dad helped other farmers extinguish the blaze until the fire brigade arrived, dismantling the haystack, dowsing each bale with water and stomping out the cinders. The damp coals’ rancid smell rose on the breeze.

And when we returned home mum gave us a neighbour’s message. One of our own trees had been struck and was still on fire. Back in the ute we thumped about among knapsacks and implements as dad drove down the track to the rabbit paddock. There a group of old pines and a boxthorn would be in danger. But by the time we arrived, all that remained of a whole, forty-foot pine tree was a smouldering stump. Ember tipped, disembodied branches scattered across the ground amongst swathes of splinters and pine needles.

Now, the moonlight has crossed the room, and settles on my bed. The gum tree shadow plays upon the blind. I stretch in anticipation of sleep and press the sheet under with my chin so I can watch the window, while remaining undetected by the bears. They are there of course, tirelessly on guard, but I am certain they are not as tall and dark as before.

I can see the moon clearly through the blind, round and so bright I imagine its warmth on my face. I watch as it settles behind the tall pines along the road, and then fade. With the room dim now, the bears doze. Soon it will be morning. I turn once more and close my eyes. Outside, blackbird song rings through the garden.

* * *

After school I complete my round of chores, taking care not to invoke mum’s impatience. This has proven increasingly difficult because her moods move independently around the house, quite unannounced. I have developed a sixth sense about them: the repeated sigh, the irritated click of her dental plate, an impatient broom or an emphatic ‘Blow!’ from the sewing room, all warn of an imminent fusion.

Snippets of conversation are insightful, too, with both tone and content suggesting clues. From these can I decide whether my day will be spent indoors or outside, playing archery.

My tree house is almost finished. I say almost because I keep thinking of more ways to make it comfortable. Strips of lino have provide a floor covering, making it much easier to clean, and reducing the drafts. And I’ve sewn gingham curtains from remnants of a wretched apron I made at school. Their bright yellow adds privacy at the window and they can be drawn closed if needs be.

Like my bedroom, the walls are lined with pictures of my favourite celebrities, vying with images from old National Geographics. A pile of recent editions serve as reading material and a stand for my table. The tabletop rests against the rear wall – a heavy sheet of corrugated cardboard reclaimed from one of mum’s pottery packages. Noggins provide shelving, displaying treasures, smaller books and several photographs. I sit on a folded mattress made from recycled wheat bags, and there is a folded blanket, too, discarded from the spare room. A once-blue, shabby, brocade cushion serves as a pillow.

I’ve spent several nights sleeping in my tree house. It’s comfortable enough and surprisingly warm with the door closed and a hot water bottle smuggled from my own bed. Even the brawling possums in higher branches don’t bother me any more.

Seems everyone has forgotten about my lair. When mum remarks on my long absences, I remind her of my love for climbing trees and my archery game. This is sufficient to allay further investigation. She is quite unaware of my nocturnal adventures.
Today, more especially this evening, I have anticipated for weeks. My science teacher has informed us there will be a lunar eclipse with the next full moon and our newspaper confirms his prediction.

With dinner dishes done and the breakfast table set, I fill my hot water bottle, grab my duffle coat and set off to my new digs. It’s almost dusk when I rest my bike on its post. I settle on the landing, rugged up and cross-legged, with my hot water bottle nestled in my lap. Before me lies the eastern horizon. The clear sky is tinged with a blush of sunset, and ripe with promise. First stars flicker and I have a spectacular front row seat for the show of the year, scheduled for just after moonrise.

With the calm of evening, an imperceptible breeze sighs through the canopy and there’s a soft, buzzing stillness muffling my ears. In the east a familiar glow becomes more distinct by the minute. I wait expectantly, imagining what qualities make a good astronomer: patience, attentiveness, the will to watch and wait. I have a long relationship with this moon: with its fullness passing my bedroom window; its reed-slender crescent welcoming me to summer fields and frost-clad pastures of winter. Now, like a globular organism, it oozes over the horizon, sitting fat and sluggish, before climbing into the sequinned sky.

Collecting itself, the orb breaks free of its moorings, now, transformed into a copper penny, then a glowing sovereign, as it sets sail. Then, as I watch, the symmetry is broken, and its rim buckles inwards. A shadow eats progressively into the sphere, tinting the bite all russet. After breathless moments the transformation is complete, and the moon pauses, a copper orb, surreal and unworldly. As I watch, spellbound, all round me the night pauses too, witnessing the spectacle. Then the earth’s shadow moves on, and a pale sliver of fullness returns, broadening with each breath. So soon the magic is passed and the world draws a long, reverential breath.

The sovereign resumes its steady climb, dazzling nearby stars, and its soft light downy on my skin. I am lost in worship; my mind journeys far and my heart feels stretched to its limits. For these few moments I feel a whole, pure peacefulness, entirely free of the bigger world. A door opens and I step through. There is no return and I’m sure of it.

Thoughts reach my limbs and there is cool air on my face. I return from my trance to this world of childhood: sitting in a house in a tree, bathed in moonlight.

We Are All Children Searching For

Poetical works of Leonard Nimoy

Poetical works of Leonard

The two editions of poetry here are
written by Leonard Nimoy.

Yep, that one…. the Star Trek guy. The
one who played Mr Spock, a shade greener than most of us, and with pointy ears. Did you know he was not only a gifted poet but also  a photographer.

And I just want to say that I miss him.

It was one of his poems that really inspired me to write further, to extend his idea. The result is a poem/lyric with the same title as his book (see at right), written in October, 1983.

I was moved to write this because much had happened to me personally – I had matured. My own travels and friendships with people of other races and creeds were a catalyst to my understanding of who I was, where I truly stood, and how the world could be – but why it isn’t.

Nimoy describes human empathy, and how simple it really is to overcome prejudice
when you take the time to get to know people who are a little different from your own.

As a result, I can truly say that the the Earth is one country, and friendship, cordiality and peace can be achieved … I have seen it happen so many times.

I have not sought Mr Nimoy’s permission to publish here, but give full acknowledgment of his work as the source of my inspiration. His book was published by Blue Mountain Arts, August 1977. “We Are All Children Searching for Love: A Collection of Poems and Photographs”, by Leonard Nimoy. See also the link included here:


We Are All Children Searching For Love

We are all children needing and wanting
Each other’s comfort and understanding.
We are the dreamers, we are the dancers –
Life is our music and love is our song.

We are all children needing each other,
Afraid of the dark and of being alone.
Fighting back tears and the fears that would choke us,
Frightened, unsure, as we face the unknown.

Our hate and suspicion will one day destroy us;
Curiosity gone, we condemn what we fear.
We tremble with rage in response to injustice
Yet cry out and shatter the peace once so near.

We are all children, though we appear older.
One day we’re not talking, the next we are friends.
Life’s just a game played within a chalk circle –
It’s no fun alone and it’s sad when it ends.

But then, out of fear, we make war against nations,
We kill and we maim to protect what we know
From that which is foreign: the richness of strangers,
Their language, traditions – all these we disown.

But if each individual would turn from his own world
And, just for one day, become part of mankind.
Standing together, arms on each others’ shoulders,
The whole world one country, one planet, one mind…

It would then be so hard to let go of each other,
For we are all children just searching for love.
It would then be so hard to turn one from the other
For we are all children searching for love.


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

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

The Hive

So many things to write about but must keep my focus.

With two manuscripts on the go, and heaps of songs and poems,
photos and news, stay tuned for many beginnings.

This first entry features lyrics to a song inspired by a
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson hit called
Rattlin’ Bones. At the time of writing I was living alone in a
farmhouse, writing each day, and dealing with all the stuff in my
head and life that living alone forces you to do.

Looking out the window, across the dry, stalked fields
where sorghum stretches like a waving, russetted sea to the horizon,
dotted with moored farm houses, I’d reflect beyond my daily work,
wondering and questioning farm practices – the way we abuse country,
our loveless relationship with cattle, timber and water, and often with each other.
I long to return to far north Queenland, with its lush, fattened
country and, in this frame of mind, wrote …

Barren Ground

We’re going down. Earth’s cracked and brown,
And harder than a river stone.
It’s cold as hell – should’ve guessed as well.
Wouldn’t come here if I’d known.

Wind moans cold round this house, so old,
So rusted – it buckles and groans.
Clouds stay high, and the roof stays dry.
All’s left is the crop we’ve sown.

Dawns start grey with the wind all day,
Not a drop of rain comes down.
Sky’s like lead, like an unmade bed:
A loveless, barren ground.

Frost last night. Now sun shines bright
On the only place that’s warm.
But the water’s froze on the kitchen stove.
It’s hard when your man is gone.

Can’t bake bread when the fire is dead
And the water’s turning brown.
What else to do when the work here’s through
And there ain’t no jobs in town?

Days grow long and the wind’s still strong,
Cracking up the crazy ground.
I’ve sold the plough – tractor’s going now:
Back to the bank in town.

It’s a shame, disgrace how they farm this place –
Beating out a penny for a pound.
And now they’re digging holes and they’re mining coal –
Diggin’ under the barren ground.

Heat rolls in, creaking walls of tin:
An’ it’s hotter than a forge’s fire.
Rain tank’s low – nothing here will grow,
And nobody wants to hire.

Wind blows dry, and it stings my eyes –
As I squint out in the glare.
Ain’t no rain on this barren plain,
An’ we’re miles from anywhere.

It’s a shame, disgrace, how they treat this place –
With another drought settling in.
Shouldn’t be allowed, tilling barren ground
And trucking the water in.

Kids, pack your bags! Load up the swags –
Leave nothing but the dust on the walls.
We’re heading north where mountains cut the air
And, at night, the curlew calls.

We’ll drive all day, till we’re far away
From these dusty, barren plains,
To where the sugar stands tall
And the waterfalls
Thunder with the summer rains.

It’s what you love that you care for most:
So, how’s your pot of gold?
Greed’s okay – it’s the market’s way –
Of looking out for when you’re old.

But when you’re done and your fortune’s won –
When you’re tired and aching and bored,
What’s left to buy, so you’re bones won’t dry,
While you’re waiting for your Lord?

Copyright – Jo Grimmer 2008