Monday, April 23, 2007

Autumn Afternoon

There is something about the afternoon light in autumn. I love the feel of winter on the edge of the breeze, like a promise of warm roast dinners and mugs of steaming hot milo. But there is something else too, the dark creeping up on you early and a new quietness as people withdraw inside their homes that bit sooner each day leaving behind a still, sad loneliness that reaches deep inside. It makes me want to cook and bustle in the kitchen, make noise and light that will reach it's fingers out of my windows and fill that cold sky, streaked with lonely afternoon bird calls, with warmth and music and human energy.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


The 4WD was big and new and shiny, you know the kind, one that has never left the bitumen and probably never will. I was sitting at the table in the park while S slept. I was still sipping my second beer while he had downed his in the usual minimal number of gulps. The view in front of me was laid out in a patchwork of greens and blues; trees, fields, towns and forests all laid out like a checkered tablecloth leading out to sea. I was allowing myself to relax and soak it all in when the vehicle turned off the road and rumbled urgently past me. Doors slammed and the sound of childen laughing rang across the bright green grass. The childen ran past me, laughing, wrestling. A boy of about twelve, a girl of ten or so, their mother herding them, camera in hand.
"Get over by that tree." She ordered, and they laughed, obliging, caught up in their own happiness and in the game they played. "No, not there! By the side, off to one side." The children tussled again, the boy pushed his sister, laughing, she pushed him back, then he hugged her and the camera clicked. Two laughing faces framed by pink frangipani flowers on one side and the distant carpet of the greens hills fading into the ocean on the other. Perfect.
The children ran back past me and I glanced up to catch the mother's eye. She shook her head, flustered, tired out by their energy and volume. I smiled. I wanted to say, "Stop! Enjoy this moment. In two years those children won't run and laugh like that. They will scowl at you when you ask for their photo if they even deign to sit in a car with you on a Sunday afternoon in the first place." But I just smiled. And she herded them back into the car and in a spin of rubber on the gravel they were gone. Children's laughter fading into the exhaust fumes of an oversized 4WD leaving a hurry on a Sunday afternoon.

I am glad they have the photo.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

April 1973 - AM

Like in any home almost anywhere in the world the kitchen was the life of the house. In the centre of the narrow room, under the windows, was the ‘Everhot’ slow combustion stove. I can still hear the creak of the firebox door, and my memory can feel the emanating heat, in summer, in winter, early in the morning and late at night, the constant unwavering soul of our home.

Until I was about thirteen I was awoken every morning to the sound of my father chopping kindling to stoke up the fire. I didn’t have a bedroom; instead I slept in the ‘sleepout’, which was basically an enclosed verandah. It had a door that opened onto stairs leading into the side garden. Out there the lemon tree, the orange tree, the peach trees and the plum crowded against the louvered southern wall. The door was weathered though and rather than strain it against the torn green linoleum to force it to a shuddering close each night, it was just left open. As I woke each morning to the sharp splintering sounds of my father’s axe work the open door afforded me a view of the woodheap and the child’s timber and chain swing alongside it. Of the wattle trees and the ironbark silhouetted against the white early dawn of the western sky. I would lie there as my eyes gained focus gazing at those dancing leaves. I saw them filled with creatures and faces. Laughing dancing girls and stern pipe smoking grandfathers. Yapping excited fox terriers and proud contented cats. In centre, facing me, cross-legged I saw an aboriginal man, holding his didgeridoo and staring hard into my face as he made his silent tribute to the beginning of the day.

All this as I listened to the firebox-ready wood crash and tumble into the woodbox by the back door, then the squeak of the firebox door and the scrape of the stoking tool as my father searched for still-warm embers amongst the ash and then laid out a few torn sheets of newspaper with the splintery tinder over it. In moments I would hear the roar and crackle of flames followed by the decisive slam of the firebox door as my father deemed his task as complete, a job well done.

It was wise to wait for a moment until the kettle was boiled before throwing on the warmest clothes I could find. Scrabbling through my ‘lowboy’ for any ill-fitting hand-me-downs from my three siblings and five cousins, the legacy of being the youngest in the generation. It is well that I was not concerned with fashion then, as I must have looked quite lost and unkempt. I rarely wore shoes, so I would run to the warmth of the kitchen before my hardened little feet had time to feel the cold.

Up above the high cupboard was where the ‘Milo’ was kept and I was allowed two teaspoons of the malt chocolate mix in hot water, one sugar and milk if we had any. If not, I would top it with tablespoons of lumpy powdered milk that became a treat in itself, sweet chewy globs of milky goodness. I would have to hide to eat that though, sneak out to the cold front verandah where my mother could not snap at me for being wasteful and greedy. “When I was a child.” Her voice would drone on endlessly.

We lived in the same house that my mother had grown up in. She reminded us every single day how lucky we were to live in such comfort, in a house with running water and painted walls. With fresh bread delivered twice weekly instead of damper made on weevil infested flour, with an actual kerosene refrigerator instead of the air-cooled ‘meatsafe’. According to my mother, everything was better when she was a child. Living on corned beef and unsweetened cocoa, believing that cheese was a treat as wonderful as chocolate and teeth could only be cleaned properly with charcoal was some form of utopia that she seemed to be forever guilty of depriving her children of. Meanwhile I spent my every waking moment straining to hear the sound of a vehicle or an aeroplane, dreaming of what it would be like to have a neighbour that lived closer than 10 miles away or a shop that was closer than sixty miles away. Civilisation called to me like some shining beacon in the far distance, on those cold mornings around the stove in that tiny kitchen my utopia was a land of homogenised milk in a bottle instead of manure laced in a bucket; of electric lights and doors that closed; and most of all of other people. It seemed that even then, my mother’s idea and my idea of the way life should be was somewhat different.

After I had swallowed down the last sweet chocolaty drops of my morning Milo and my mother and father were leaning, smoking cigarettes over the stove and sipping their hot tea I would carefully pour a cup for my Grandmother. She had a favourite cup and saucer and she drank her tea white with none. My feet would feel their way across the wide worn cypress pine floorboards through the dining room across the gold linoleum in the sunroom and to her door.

“Good morning Sunshine” she would say as she unhooked her sliding door and let me in. I loved the mornings in my Grandmother’s room. The “His Master’s Voice” radio and her dressing table top drawer filled with exotic earrings and untouchable pills. My cousin took one once. I always imagine it was one of the little red ones. They bundled her into the car and rushed her to the hospital. An hour and a half of stressful dirt road driving all the way to town. I assume they pumped her stomach when they got her there because she lived to climb the rafters in the shed another day and swallow some strychnine so that the whole panicky process could be repeated. Another survival to add to the family story archive, told and retold until nobody can remember exactly how the original story transpired.

As she drank her tea my Grandmother would tell me stories. Answer my questions about her childhood in Scotland and traveling to Australia by ship to grow up in Brisbane. She would allow me to gaze at my reflection in her magnifying mirror so I could imagine what I might look like when I was all grown up. So there I would be, perched on my grandmother’s bed, with my mismatched hand-me-down clothes, my chocolate ringed mouth, excruciatingly painful screw on drop earrings reflected in that mirror into the future while I thought about Scotland, castle, cities and ships. A world away from the morning bellow of the cattle in the yards, waiting to be fed and milked and drafted in a ritual that comforted and infuriated me all at once.

Grandma would shoo me away while she got dressed for her day and I would race across to the yards with the others. Most mornings I rummaged through the old shoe box by the back stairs, hoping against hope that my feet may have grown enough during the night that one of the pairs of dusty old riding boots might fit me. My mother would snap at me in her panicked voice to check for red-back spiders before I put my feet into danger. So I would use my hand to check as she insisted. That logic still baffles me? I never found a red-back and those boots never did fit, so I would stay barefoot, running across the sharp spiky dry grass as fast as I could so it wouldn’t have the chance to hurt my feet.

The yards were warm with animal respiration and busy as we worked, mixing grains, filling troughs with water and feed drums with hay. Mucking out the bull stalls, milking, letting calves in and out and. It was all hands on deck and conversation was king as we performed our tasks by habit. An hour or so of teamwork every morning and evening without fail. Back at the house Grandma would have a cooked breakfast ready on the table when we returned. We always came into the house through the kitchen, leaving boots outside or scraping the manure from our feet. The kitchen would be warm and filled with the smells of cooking as we crowded through to the bathroom to wash our hands and feet then quickly dress in slightly better clothes for school.

I never remember having to rush yet even after that leisurely two-course breakfast every morning where we delved into the cornflakes for the hidden toy and argued over how many omelettes we each had eaten, we seemed to have time to burn. We helped Grandma clear the table and wash up. Four kids fighting over who was wiping and who was putting away and my brother gleefully flicking me on the bottom with the wet teatowel. The drive to school was eleven miles. We always drove seven but my parents took it in turns with another family to drive the last five. So we met at the “Black Gate”, a gate thus named after it began its life soaked in Linseed oil but had long since grayed in the weather and the sun. We played hopscotch in the sand there as we waited for the other family and then for our parents to stop talking about the weather and the government and the price of fuel.

Then it was time for another day of school.... I hope you have enjoyed waking up with me on some unremarkable day in 1973?