Category Archives: Fiction

Carnarvon calling

Forgive me readers, but it is nearly a year since my last blog post. Quite happy to say some Hail Marys or do other forms of penance. I published a novel in February, as you’re know doubt aware (smiley face), and I’ve been trekking all over the country promoting it, so it feels like I’ve been talking non-stop even though this blog has been on radio silence.

Speaking of radio silence, let’s talk about the Dish! Readers of The Lucky Galah will know that the Dish is one of my characters. The Dish sends and receives messages from Lucky the galah, and that’s how they discover more about what’s going on in the town of Port Badminton.

OTC Dish on Brown's RangeIn April, I went back to the Source, which is the big satellite dish that sits on the red sand dune on the outskirts of Carnarvon. That Dish is the inspiration for my Dish, and Carnarvon is the inspiration for Port Badminton. And the whole place is infused with the culture of the Yinggarda people who have lived there on Yamaji Country from time immemorial.

I flew from Perth to Carnarvon on an expensive Skippers flight (the frequency and affordability of flights in and out of Carnarvon has been a vexed issue; the service has now been taken over by Rex). I hired a silver Mitsubishi Outlander and even before checking into the caravan park, began to trawl around the sites that are now woven through my being: the One Mile Jetty, Pelican Point, Dwyers Leap, the Gascoyne River, Chinaman’s Pool, the Dish, the Fascine. Once again I was drinking the water of this place, eating its food and scuffing my feet in its pinky-yellow sand and gravel and red dirt and patchy grass.

Now, three months later, in the depths of a Bathurst winter, I’m constantly thinking my way back across the continent: back along the long roads, the hours of airtime, the view through the window of a Qantas plane into pure pink sunset, the Skippers terminal full of working men in high vis on their way to the mines up north.

Thinking my way back across the continent of Australia, the world seems big again; sitting slumped at a computer screen with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in my face, it feels alarmingly small. I want to get back to the uncluttered bigness of Western Australian skies, where the world returns to mystery and possibility. An adventure.

Jetty_through_peep_holeI headed for the One Mile Jetty first, as if paying respects to a venerable relative. There it was, with time collapsing in the familiar feel of the wind, the smell of seaweed. The same and yet different. The long finger out into the Indian Ocean is closed to the public now. It’s all boarded up, the hoardings covered with posters telling of the sea creatures hereabouts: parrotfish, manta ray, mulloway, crayfish, nudibranch, blue swimmer crab, bottlenose dolphin. In the middle there’s a small square window cut into the board that you can step up to and peer through. You get to see it again, stretching out into the sea just as it always did, only it’s old now, and so weak that you’re not allowed to set foot on it.

Next, I drove in to Dwyers Leap at the mouth of the Gascoyne, where decades of flood have altered the lines of land and water since we were there among the speedboats in our coloured terry-towelling hats. I watched the sunlight sparkling on water just as I did as a child. Standing on the rippled silt, I got a call from Les Bateman who’d worked at the Tracking Station in the 1970s. I’d been going to spend more time just mooching around by myself, marinated in memories and familiar sensations, but now I decided to head up to the Dish.

Bougainvillea, Space Museum, CarnarvonThere it was, with the Space Museum at its foot, a riot of bougainvillea around the entrance. Carloads of visitors were going in and out.

Les took me down to a small building below the main complex, tiny with a domed roof, a bit like a Dalek. Here, I discovered that space science on this red sand dune is still alive after all. There were two scientists crammed into the structure as big as two back yard toilets stuck together, with a ladder up to the domed area above.

Steven Hale and Eddie Ross from the University of Birmingham were in Carnarvon in April to tend equipment measuring seismic activity on the sun (the “earthquakes” of the sun, or “helioseismology”). When they’re not around, Les Bateman, who lives in Carnarvon, looks in on the equipment to make sure it’s still working.

The station is part of the Birmingham Solar-Oscillations Network, aka BiSON. Steve and Eddie had a stuffed toy bison on the desk as a mascot, which they brought outside with them when I lined them up for a photo. Steve and Eddie quietly come and go from the Carnarvon station (there are other BiSON stations dotted around the world and there’s another one in Australia at Narrabri in New South Wales) staying at what used to be called Tuckey’s Flats, now Carnarvon Central Apartments.

After that, I continued my lap around the old haunts. The old prawning jetty (let us pause to acknowledge the fictional Kevin Kelly) dissolving into the sea. Samphire flats, mangroves. A mother and small child playing on the shining wet sand in the last light at Pelican Point.

T-Jetty on the FascineThe Fascine, that sweep of sea wall at the bottom of Robinson street, has had a make-over. It has a twenty-first century look about it now, although the improvements used a type of metal that is already starting to rust. The new sea wall respectfully skirts around the old T-jetty where we used to catch puffed-up spiky blowfish and maybe – like the kids in The Lucky Galah – we threw them under the wheels of passing cars to hear them pop.

At the DishOn the Saturday, having teamed up with a couple of old school friends, Tricia (who flew up from Perth) and Ellen (who still lives in Carnarvon), I gave an author talk at the Space Museum. There was a momentary panic when I had Tricia and Ellen dashing around town looking for the morning tea. (I’d organised cakes and sandwiches over the phone from Bathurst, neglecting to pay attention to exactly which bakery I was ordering from.) They got back just in time with the foil-covered plates. The scientists from Birmingham University came along, as did school friends Noelene and Jackie and a few others. A small audience, true, but that was okay because I was hitting a Major Life Goal Bucket List Cross-Off. I was at the Dish with my own published novel in hand. Win! I’d over-catered, but as we left I noticed Museum visitors enjoying the left-over cake.

Coastline, QuobbaTricia and Ellen and I headed for Quobba Station north of the Blowholes. We stayed in a chalet and communed with the crash of the ocean and giant golden-orange sunsets streaked with blotches of grey cloud. On the beach, I crouched down to admire the giant clam shells like the ones Mrs Boon used to paint scenes of the Blowholes on. We had the idea to do a day-trip to Coral Bay on the Ningaloo Reef where you can swim with whale sharks. We wouldn’t swim, though, we’d just have lunch there. The sensible thing would be to head back out to the sealed highway and head north that way, but seeing we had a four-wheel drive, why not take the dirt road that hugs the coast?

Bad. Idea.

Gnarloo Station signWe were, of course, out of range of Google Maps. The dirt road went on and on and on, sometimes juddering over corrugations, sometimes threatening to consume the Outlander in soft drifts of sand. Western Australia is a giant and it doesn’t care about three women in a silver Outlander. What if we broke down? I started to berate myself for being just like the stupid tourists who drive into the outback in their air conditioned cars, break down and die a horrible death before anyone can find them. But then, finally, the great stone archway of Gnarloo Station hove into view. It was still a rough old ride to the homestead, but it gave us a renewed sense of destination and purpose. At the homestead, we were told that the track between Gnarloo and Coral Bay hadn’t been used for at least a decade. Oh well, forget Coral Bay. Let’s check out Gnarloo!

Gnarloo StationGnarloo was strange. This was new territory, a place I’d never been before. The land rose like a great pink wave from which you looked down into a valley studded with bands of hardy goats. Beyond that rose another wave, this time of pure sand dune. It was dramatic and slightly unnerving. All around, there were stone chalets being built as the station diversified from livestock into tourism. The chalets were made out of the same pinkish rock as the surrounding landscape. It felt like a scene out of a science fiction movie.

We made our way back to the more familiar landscape at Quobba, and another evening of sunset, crashing waves and memories. Names, families, comings and goings, hatchings and matchings, the answers to some puzzles, the deepening of certain mysteries.

Back in town, Tricia and Ellen performed a re-enactment of a photograph I took of them in Year 11, standing near the gate at the high school. We examined the plaques marking the spots where time capsules had been buried. The solid mid-century brick and tile state high school building will be vacated at the end of the year. Beginning in 2019, students will start attending classes at what used to be East Carnarvon Primary School, now called Carnarvon Community College and catering for Kindergarten to Year 12. On its website, the WA Department of Education calls this “a process of vibrant change”. Will they be sure to carry the time capsules – such symbols of hope for the future – off to the new campus?

Tricia and I went fishing among the mangroves on the north side of the river in honour of our late fathers, who loved to fish. Tricia bought a good knife, hand lines, bait. We stood amongst the mangroves and cast out, only to feel the fish nibble daintily at our hooks and swim away freely. “I feel like we’re just feeding them,” said Tricia. We were perfectly happy with that.

Carnarvon, Western AustraliaAlone in the Outlander, I continued my moochings around town. Here’s the Little House on the Highway which seemed so far out of town then. Here’s our place in Hill Street overlooking the oval. Here’s how I walked to primary school and later, to high school, past the hostel where station kids boarded.

I walked from the Fascine across the old wooden bridge to Babbage Island, past people fishing from camp chairs, all the while following the old train tracks used to take bales of wool from Camel Lane across Babbage Island and then out to the end of the One Mile Jetty. The old tracks were still there, sometimes twisted or covered over with sand.

When I got to the One Mile, tourists were looking forlornly at the boarded up entrance. I had a coffee at the cafe and enjoyed the scenery, including a diagonal view of the white-painted jetty going out to sea; from this angle you wouldn’t even know it was closed. And I wandered all around the back of the Cafe/Museum complex, picking through the tangle of wood and metal remains of the glory days of trains and shipping and cargo and all the people and animals that used to come and go from this spot. I remembered how a circle of these flat wagons used to be out at the Pony Club; we’d run across the top of them, leaping from wagon to wagon.

I parked the Outlander on the road opposite The Little House on the Highway where we lived next-door-but one to the Thomases (note: the Thomases and the Sorensens are nothing like the Kellys and Johnsons of The Lucky Galah except in one respect: the Thomases had a giant wooden fork and spoon hanging on the wall, which I found a little Jack-and-the-Beanstalk freaky).

On the Tuesday, the day before Anzac Day, I did a second author talk, this time at the Library. This was very special. As you might imagine, I loved the library as a child. It was presided over by Mrs Dupree, who seemed strict and ancient but would unexpectedly smile at you. We’d get craft books out and go home and attempt the crafts. My sister Deb named one of our new grey kittens Abdul after the cat in the library book Abdul the Grey. But I wasn’t returning to that exact place to do my talk. The Library and Art Gallery are now housed in what used to be the squash courts. There was a bigger audience this time, thanks to the Library’s promotional efforts. It included Val Jolly of Jolly’s Tyres, where Dad worked for a while in the early 1970s and Enga Smith, who wrote Saddle in the Kitchen with its cover illustration by my old art teacher, David Bornshin. People were keen to chat with Tricia, whose family (the Fongs) ran Fongs Drapery and Haberdashery on the corner of Francis and Robinson streets for decades.

That evening, Tricia and I went back to the Library for a presentation by health writer Melissa Sweet who had recently completed a doctorate focusing on the lock hospital era. The audience was made up of Aboriginal people who had advised her, plus some non-Aboriginal townspeople and a few “strays” like Tricia and I. Island lock hospitals like the ones on Bernier and Dorre Islands off Carnarvon are a sad and sorry part of Australian history. The rounding up and imprisonment of Aboriginal people, many of whom were not actually ill, can only be described as barbaric. “It was a land grab,” said elder Raymond Edney simply and directly. “We’re still feeling it,” a couple of the women said. The meeting was attended by Bob Dorey and Kathleen Musulin who appeared with musician Peter Garrett on the SBS episode of Who Do You Think You Are. That episode focused on Garrett’s grandmother’s time as a nurse in the hospital. Kathleen Musulin’s great grandmother was incarcerated in the lock hospital. She is now part of a working group tasked with creating a memorial to acknowledge the pain and suffering wrought during that era.

My last full day in Carnarvon was Anzac Day, with the townspeople gathered around the War Memorial. We got up for the dawn service followed by bacon and egg rolls at the RSL Club. Tricia got chatting about history with the Shire President, Karl Brandenburg, who invited us to have a look at the display of historic photos in the Council chambers. As it turns out, the Council is now housed in the building that was the Library when I was a kid, so I got to snoop around in there after all. There, on the walls, was a display of all the iconic places I’d woven, in fictional form, into The Lucky Galah: the Fascine in different incarnations over the decades, the One Mile Jetty in full swing, the first truck to take bananas to Perth by road, the Dish when it was first built, NASA people at the tracking station in the 1960s.

The next day, as I waited for the Skippers plane, I saw these scenes again, this time in a small mural attached to the side of the terminal. There’s the 1960 flood, the One Mile, the bananas…

From the outside – if you’re just gathering supplies from the supermarket as you head further north in your camper van – Carnarvon admittedly doesn’t look like much. It’s just another small Australian town fighting for its life. From the inside, for those who live there or ever lived there, it is unforgettable. Its isolation, small population and giant landscape combine to create lives that seem hand-made out of the earth, sea and sky. I’ve taken some of this material and woven it into a work of fiction. I know I’m treading on unsteady ground here. People can get very upset with how you represent them. The Lucky Galah is not all beer and skittles. It encompasses darker corners of Australian life and politics and psyche. The risk of being excommunicated is ever-present. It may be one of the reasons I’ve taken so long to write this post. I wasn’t quite sure where I stood.

But you can never be sure where you stand. The river rushes on, the sea smashes into rock, history is made and forgotten. You’re just part of it all for a while.

On being edited

I’m being edited. It’s as pleasurable as a massage, a long sleep-in, a sunset. It’s one of the best things ever. I sigh. I purr like a cat. I allow my bottom eyelid to slide upwards while a finger scritches the feathers behind my invisible ear. My novel, The Lucky Galah, is now in the hands of delicate and attentive editors. Do I really want that comma there? What about the repetition of the word “swirly”? Such beautiful questions. I make another cup of tea and think about them.

Editors are, like so many things I love, endangered. The Internet gives us unmediated access to audiences. Whatever brain explosion you’re having, you’re only a click away from putting it out there, complete with badly-placed commas (and worse, much worse).

I learned how to be a journalist by being “subbed” (subedited). You’d submit your work and once the paper had rolled off the press you’d grab a copy to see what headline they’d added, how they’d rearranged your paragraphs, how they’d worked out what you were trying to say and sharpened it. I had no idea at the time that subs would soon be dying out. That there would be no-one to shout your ignorance across the room, chop all your sentences in half, tell you to get on the phone and check. I had no idea that we’d be losing adult supervision, leaving everything to 20-somethings who are smart and fast but sometimes don’t know shit.

Steve Painter

Steve Painter

Last December I said goodbye to the best editor I ever had. Steve Painter was the editor of Direct Action when I went to work there in the late 1980s. I didn’t know anything. He was 15 years older than me, and he knew a lot. He seemed gruff but he was actually careful and sensitive. It was hard work and long – stupidly long – hours, because this wasn’t just a newspaper, it was cause. I’d sometimes work until 3am and then sleep under my desk for a few hours and wake at dawn. Downstairs, there was a proper Italian coffee machine – we were early adopters in terms of workplace coffee – and I’d steam up a hit and come back to finish my piece. My stories were at first almost completely reworked by Steve, but nicely. I learned a lot very quickly. He told me to read Orwell’s Politics and the English language. I did. We both lived in pre-gentrified Chippendale – me in Shepherd Street, he in Rose Street.  I went over to his place for dinner one night and didn’t go home. A couple of years later we were in Prague together reporting on the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We broke up after we got back, and both of us moved on from that particular brand of political activity. He ended up as a sub at The Australian for 20 years. I did a lot of different things, including editing advertising features for Fairfax Community Newspapers. I was heavily in advertorial territory here, just as Steve was lurking in the belly of the beast of the Murdoch empire. By these means we were able to scrape together deposits for our respective houses. Steve got together with Rose, with whom he spent the last 25 years of his life, and I ended up with another Steve.

I was interested to hear at Steve Painter’s funeral from his colleagues at The Australian. They adored and respected him. They enjoyed the trademark giggle that would emanate from this burly man. Working on the IT section of the paper, he’d get a piece of incomprehensible technical verbiage and craft it into a sharp and readable piece. The reporter would look good.

Steve P. is no longer with us, and editors in general are a dying breed. I was reading Meanjin the other day, and saw the word “breech” used instead of “breach”. As in, “he breeched the apprehended violence order”. There’s Meanjin, publisher of Donald Horne and Judith Wright,  letting a malapropism  slip through the breach.

But there are still editors at Picador, and I’m in their careful hands. Nobody’s perfect; mistakes will slip through. But at least there’s a process, and I’m grateful that it still exists. I was worried that by the time I got here, novels would no longer be printed on paper and editors would no longer exist. I was worried I’d have to just lob my digital offerings at Amazon, riddled with mistakes and problems I was unaware of. But I did get here. And I’ve heard that people are going back to books, real printed dead-tree books, and maybe people will go back to editors, too, because we need them.

My name is Tracy, and I’m a Pokémon Go addict

spearow_crochet

Caught a Spearow.

Writing this post… I’ll just keep the app running, okay? The phone is sitting on a clever little stand I made out of a piece of plastic packaging, and a non-slip sock filled with lentils. I wedge the phone between the plastic and the little bean bag snugs itself around it. I think I could make these for Etsy. Anyway, where was I? With the phone propped up nicely against the … buzz…. wow…. a Pokemon? YES! Oh, it’s just a Pidgey. Pidgeys are so BORING. They just look like … like pigeons. The other day I was walking along the street and saw a group of crested pigeons and I felt an inner buzz, that little spike of addictive energy and then I realised I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) catch ’em all because they were actual pigeons. And I realised I had it bad.

Pidgeys are boring, but it’s important to catch them so you can level up. I’m now at Level 16. So I grind through my Pidgeys (this is called “Pidgey grinding”) hoping all the while for something more rare and interesting, like a Bellsprout. Bellsprouts might not be rare in other parts of the world, but they’re very unusual in South Bathurst. I reckon I could crochet a Bellsprout. A quick Google. But other people have already done that. And other people are already having fun with Pokémon Go as addiction.

 

I confess I have found myself lurking near the controversial Evans statue in the town square, which has become a notorious local Pokestop. The scene was dark and cold, lit only by street lamps and the red glow that lights up the war memorial. There was a group of teenage boys just over there … and me. We did not acknowledge each other. We were there to do what we had to do.

But it’s not all just pidgey-grinding with me, I hasten to add. A few other things are going on. My agent (yes! I have an agent!) has just sent my novel (my novel!) off to publishers, so I have to sit around with my fingers crossed & get Bertie to cross all his claws, which is difficult for him to do. Bertie would be a useless Pokémon. Combat Power of about 8. He works best as a Lab assistant lying patiently on his lambskin rug behind my chair. And I’m still working on my PhD research proposal, which means reading up on the agency of nature and critical plant studies, which brings me back to the Bellsprout. We think of nature as dead. Animals are dead meat; plants might be alive but they’re vegetative, which has negative connotations. What if we felt the world as a living, thriving, thrumming thing, which is actually what it is? A thing full of myriad things all with their own lives, their own work? That’s what I’m exploring in my PhD; how we might become more alive to the more-than-human world. How do we make it interesting enough to stop fucking wrecking it? As I walk down Torch Street, I’m alive to the vibrating possibility of Pokémon flitting about in augmented reality like shimmering dragonflies. There’s this humming other world that I can enter and play with. As a child I did this with ants – I’m talking real ants, here, the ones that have an ant-smell – watching them walk in lines, talk to each other with their feelers, carry a crumb. For my PhD, I’m exploring how my crocheted guts became a way of interacting with my barely known and threatened organs. I’m exploring the hand-made, but I can also quite excited about the possibilities of augmented reality games as a way to get modern children interested in the more than human world. Locally, we could have a blackthorn pocket monster and a purple copperwing butterfly and the ant that tends its larvae. Kids (and adults) could catch em all, have fun and engage with the barely-seen nature that lives here with them.

Bzzzt. There’s a Weedle! Darn, I’m out of Pokéballs.

Another year

Wicket_cardAnother year down, and all is well! I’m still here and my numbers are still nice and low – 12 last time we looked. For this, I thank modern medicine and the wizardry of my two surgeons. I’m happy but never entirely out of the woods. I walk in the wooded valley of the shadow of the Rainbow Bridge. People think the Rainbow Bridge is just for pets but it’s not; it takes bookings from anyone. Actually none of us ever gets out of the woods. There’s always more woods. And woods are beautiful places, buzzing with life…

Anyway, I’m getting carried away by my own metaphors, so let’s move on.

While last year was all about taxol, carboplatin and long stretches of time on the couch, this year was a bit of whirl as I got back into Life at 100km an hour. Teaching was weird. I’m probably a bit like Samson, taking strength from my hair. I felt I didn’t have quite enough hair to stand in front of a room of 19 year olds and hold my own.  Meanwhile, I was sewing three giant turquoise dresses and learning my steps for the Invisible Body performance in May, where three of us did nifty moves on stage while someone else read out our personal accounts of living in bodies. We did this twice and then on the last day of the Bathurst outpost of the Sydney Writer’s Festival I got to be on a little panel of bloggers talking about our blogs. I said I blogged every Thursday, no matter what. This commitment has now begun to unravel, as you may have noticed.

What else went on this year? Check the photos on the computer. Oh, a LOT! There was a little campaign to save the Tremain silos in Keppel Street (saved!); Tracey Carpenter’s campaign for the state seat of Bathurst (retained by Paul Toole); the giant Diffenbacchia pot plant reached the level of the ceiling fan and then FELL OVER. I cut it off to its stump, leaving its two daughter plants to replace their mother (they are going very well); we had an Afternoon Teal to raise money for ovarian cancer at which Deb and Bernie, Max and Joey auctioned small items and we made lots of money (and Larissa baked cakes using the neighbour’s stove because ours was on the blink); there was the trip to Kandos to help Karen Golland poke pom poms into the ground, and then a day at Cementa; a school hols visit including nephews and a random kid they brought along; a trip to Shelley beach with Bertie and his cousin Wicket; painting ring-pulls for this year’s Waste to Art exhibition; an attempt to make sauerkraut (it looked the part but we never ate it); making Nicole Welch’s promotional video; getting more hair; going to TASMANIA (Maria Island and Hobart and a bit of the east coast) with Ranger Steve; experiencing a day of snow in the streets of Bathurst; experiencing, with all of Bathurst, the shock of the murder-suicide of cafe proprietor Elie Issa and beautiful real estate agent Nadia Cameron; more hair; following along as Mum constructed a separate wing at the back of Deb’s place to move in to; and then the grand flurry of the 200 Plants and Animals exhibition in the Bathurst CBD, followed by a battle to stop a gold mine sucking water out of the Macquarie River. Steve’s sudden obsession with kayaks. Whoa! No wonder I’m tired! And that’s not to mention the first steps into a PhD and the most amazing thing I haven’t mentioned yet but will mention now.

Over the last half of this year, I was mentored by the totally amazing and brilliant Charlotte Wood, author of The Submerged Cathedral and The Natural Way of Things as I made one last charge up over the trench and into the enemy lines of Finishing This Wretched Novel for Once and For All. (I’d finished it before, a couple of times, but not really. It still had essential problems, problems I was hoping some editor, somewhere, would help me fix.) Charlotte gave me some big guns. Howitzers. These will be handy in future battles. So as 2015 comes to a close The Lucky Galah, the novel I’ve been working on forever, is now really, truly, ruly finished, except for some typos and tiny touch-ups. And I’m so glad I didn’t settle for faulty earlier drafts. This novel is not quite the perfect thing I had in mind, but it is as good as it’s ever going to get, so that’s that. Done. Line ruled under. All over.

Meanwhile, out in the bigger picture, I just want to take a moment to savour the moment Tony Abbot was ousted. I know all the stuff about Malcolm carrying on most of the same policies, only in a more smooth-talking way, but I tell you what, that moment of waking up the next day was pure bliss. It was like a weight dropping off the shoulders of the nation.

Finally, little Wicket the long-haired dog really did step over the Rainbow Bridge recently. Vale Wicket. And Vonnie, my sister’s Mother in Law, with whom I spent many Christmas days. And thinking of Dad, too, who is sitting on a chair on a deck somewhere over the Rainbow Bridge, with his big white Maremma dog at his feet, looking through his binoculars at all the native Australian birds in the tree canopies.

Jack and the tattered weed

sunflowerI’ve been having a lot of trouble getting out of bed in the morning. As I’m working from home, there’s no need to be up at six, or seven, or eight. Or nine, or even ten. And having begun the day late, it’s impossible to sleep early, so each day is starting later, ending later. In the 1990s I had friends who lived in Philpott Street, Marrickville, who had let this process reach its logical conclusion: they awoke just before dusk and went to bed again at first light. I remember being there at about one o clock in the morning while they ate and chatted as if it were one in the afternoon. I can’t let things get that bad, I tell myself. I’ll have to start getting up earlier. But then, suddenly, it’s  morning again. I feel like I only just got to sleep ten minutes ago. I decide to snooze a little bit longer.

This morning, at a time that felt like the middle of the night, I heard a short, sharp buzz. It was a text message from a friend inviting me to have morning tea at ten o clock, two hours hence. I went back to sleep. At five minutes to ten, I hauled myself out of bed and got around the corner to Fiona’s place. I told her that while I was physically present, my mind was not actually awake. She fed me a cup of coffee and the rich smell offered a magic carpet ride to the land of youthfulness, wakefulness and vigour.

She read me Shakespeare’s second sonnet.

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed of small worth held –

It’s about what happens when one is over forty, and one’s brow is furrowed and one is just a tattered bit of seaweed washed up on some godforsaken shore and nobody can even be bothered to look at you …

The solution to this grim state of affairs, says Shakespeare, is to have lots of children. That way, you can continue to be young and beautiful because your children will be young and beautiful. You can gaze upon them and that will comfort you in your hours of pointlessness. Fiona’s brow has been besieged by forty winters; mine ten more. Between us we have not had one child; we are without remedy for the cruel ravages of time’s scythe.

Except for coffee. The coffee did the trick. I’d come as a tattered weed but I was leaving as a strong, bright sunflower like the ones that are growing against the fibro wall out the back, reminding me of all the other sunflowers of my life. They’ll grow anywhere. Galahs love the seeds. I may not have children, but I can always find a galah or a sunflower to get a dose of cheerful, hardy things (unlike, say, the white rhino, whose days are definitely numbered).

MBJBack home, as I did the dishes, I listened to a program on ABC Radio National about George Johnston’s My Brother Jack. It’s fifty years since the book was published. George Johnston and Charmian Clift and most of their children – non-hardy creatures – are long gone, but the book lives on. I’ve carted my copy around since I first read it as a teenager. Images from the book are companions through my life. Insects still drop out of the  dollicus*. Prosthetic limbs and a gas mask clutter the hallway. The gum tree in the front yard that Helen didn’t like because it was messy grows tall and strong in the Australian light; a broken man, falsely accused of murder, tends his roses. The green eyeshades worn by the copy editors at the Argus and the crumpled trench coats and pork pie hats worn by the reporters. When I told my English lit teacher how much I loved the book, she sneered: “What about the development of the female characters?” I was taken aback. I had so thoroughly identified with the tortured David Meredith (endlessly contrasted with his brave, straightforward brother Jack) that I had barely noticed Johnston’s two-dimensional portrayals of Sheila and Helen and Cressida.

lucky_countryThe book keeps company on my bookshelf with Donald Horne’s Lucky Country, published the same year. My Brother Jack has a digger painted by Sidney Nolan. The cover of Horne’s slim paperback is by Albert Tucker. It’s a craggy painting of a bloke with a beer in his hand, an Ace of spades in his pocket and the glorious deep blue sea behind him. In the sea there are bright triangles that might be the sails of boats or the fins of circling sharks. Both books were searing critiques of Australian life that became, as the decades rolled on, part of the pantheon of Australian mythology. The Australia Johnston and Horne both loved and deplored began to vanish and as it vanished, a fantasy took the place of all the messy details. Australia was a wide brown land inhabited by sturdy, uncomplicated Jack Merediths. It is this Australia – this fantasy lucky country – that is brooded over and celebrated in drunken, flag-covered binges on Australia Day. It is the Australia evoked by those who say Fuck Off We’re Full and by John Howard when he laments the “black armband” view of history. It’s a sentiment that spiked during Monday’s Sydney siege but was tempered by Tuesday’s #illridewithyou.

Tracy_Deb_Jetty_early_70sSpeaking of history, I have been besieged by forty years and ten. My brow is not that furrowed, but there’s a whole part of me – recovering from cancer, missing body parts – that is definitely doddery. And like George Johnston in exile on Hydra, I miss the Australia of my early memories. A child’s world is a simple world. Some people are good and others are bad. Your legs can run you up the side of a levee bank or down a burning sand dune. Your abdomen contains its full quotient of pink organs that slide easily over each other as you go into a handstand. The deep blue sea meets a clear blue sky that arches over a wide brown land with a blue EH Holden moving purposefully across it.

It’s driving into tomorrow, where things are different.


* The dollicus is the name the Meredith family gives a creeping vine in their back yard.