Leaving High school

School leaving

So here we are at the end of my son’s final year of high school.

He is unrecognisable as the pale blond boy, with a mother’s bad haircut, who entered Montessori as a three year old. His hair is darker, barber cut, his face longer and more bored. He seldom laughs, at least around his parents. Some times I glimpse the hair on his legs and it’s, “where did that little boy go?” I see the way he is with the dog and am relieved.

He has always been a reluctant school goer – despite changing from different styles of school, looking for the one with the best fit. Years of early education in Montessori, a few years in the traditional public school system and ending with six years of Catholic all boys school. All different, and yet all the same – approached with dreariness and shoulder-slumping.

I remember him making potions like the neighbour’s six year old does now. There was passion in potion making. Passion in spy make-believe, from the high vantage of the limestone wall. Passion kicking between the paper barks, in being Ablett and Bally. But no passion for school. School equated with work and work was something that adults complained endlessly about.

We wonder, as parents, if we could have done something better – his father laments he was too tough on him early. Did he ask too much of him? In moments of exasperation we did yell and holler louder than we wish. We have all wanted to rewind and take back those words that were blurted out at a child who appeared to be doing something just to make you boil over. I think of taking him to riding lessons at the Claremont show grounds – spurred on by his enthusiasm on a mule ride in the Grand Canyon. After a few lessons he began to hate it and cried in the car on the way there. And I drove on. I pleaded with him to finish the term. The teacher, still a girl, spent time on her mobile as he sat rigid, unsmiling on a barely moving pony, circling her.

I wish I had known as much as I do about dog training and behaviour when I could have influenced him more. How might I have been able to shape behaviour better? Maybe give him more choice? Now he seems cast adrift. I watch from the banks and know that ineffectual waving is all I can do. How do you wave to signify “take care”, “I love you”, “you can do this”, “I have your back.” The generic hand in the air is just that. Bye. He is too far out now for him to hear me. I am shrinking, as he slips away, over the breakers and becoming a barely seen blip on the shoreline of home.

He goes to an 18th birthday party when he is seventeen. He tells me it is in South Fremantle. Another parent will drive them and he waits for them on the driveway, whilst killing time shooting baskets. I don’t go out to check on the address with the parent who is driving, although I know this is something I should do. It is, no doubt, parenting 101. I don’t do it because I know my presence beside the car, leaning awkwardly in towards the driver, and perhaps saying something obtuse and embarrassing, will make him wince. He is waiting purposefully outside so as to avoid me speaking to and being seen by the other parent. I have given him money for the Uber home that he says his friend will order and that is all the information I have. My questions swirl about my head, but I have had my allotted two grunts today, and so further questioning will likely only irritate further.

It seems somewhat deserving that I have a son so abashed by me, as I was equally mortified in the presence of my mother. I would have mostly done anything to have the earth split in two and swallow her when she was with me. And yet she loved me with a fervour. Unerring. She seemed oblivious to the embarrassment she caused – effusive and ebullient with strangers, shop keepers and wait staff, anyone. And loud. I did, over time, get used to it, and even come to admire it, but it took me into my twenties and beyond to see that she did it because it was her. People gave her joy.

It has been said that when a parent or loved one dies the relationship keeps going and evolving. It doesn’t end because they’re no longer in the physical world. I think of my mother and feel a deep ache in the centre of my chest for the woman that loved me so intensely. I feel sorry that maybe she never saw how much she meant to me while she was still alive. My love for her has finally caught up to the love she had for me – if we were twin high divers we would hit the water together, in unison, and the entry would make the perfect ripple. People would applaud.

I swim laps in tepid summer pool and remember doing this pregnant. There are fires and droughts across the country. The internet is full of orange skies and burnt koalas. Climate change is real. Even rain forest can burn. I see mothers coming from the toddler pool with little damp limpets clinging to them. A baby sucks his mother’s bare shoulder. When I was pregnant, before I became too rotund, I was able to get into the pool unaided, by falling off the pool deck like a toppled bowling pin. Afterwards, I hauled myself out. Nearing the end of the pregnancy they had a mechanical hoist and I was freakishly lowered in and levitated out. Dead whale. While I swam, I meditated on the growing foetus – telling the little bean that their future would be bright, anything they wanted. I would repeat “you will be fit and healthy and happy” as I stroked up and down the pool. Now I enter via the ramp on an oversized water wheelchair, so plastic and hospital beige. I swim my laps, while the teenager still sleeps on. At completion a signalled-to life guard returns the wheelchair to the water and it is like being an astronaut manoeuvring it – my weightless body and jaunty legs, getting them in sync, before reaching the shallows and the vessel finds its own solidity and can be propelled up the ramp. More little toddlers dart in front of me and their mothers tell them to be careful.  Careful of what? Me? What am I now? An old disabled woman, haphazard in the beige contraption.

I have not got enough information about the party. As I hear the car pull away I know this. When the boy/man’s father comes home and I explain why I don’t have this information I know it sounds weak and feeble. I am feeling weak and feeble. Feeble mother. How did offending this boy become something I am so reluctant to do?

We watch an episode of Chernobyl, like the middle aged people we are. We watch the flesh melt off the radiation affected humans and a child born die within four hours of her birth. We watch the conscripted soldiers shoot the abandoned pets, who eye them soulfully, and then tip them into deep pits and pour concrete over their corpses. We see bravery and stupidity. Boron and graphite take on new meaning. TV ads telling of the 16 types of cancer you can get from sugary drinks from the toxic fat in your abdomen need to be muted as I take a glance down at my own waist line. Like the hair on my son’s legs I don’t know how my own belly came to be there.

I think about my own going out at seventeen. My parents watching the Onedin Line. How my mother loved Peter Gilmore. I wonder what my parents knew of where I was going or what I would be doing and when I would be home. Of the contraceptive pill in the drawer beside my bed. They could not ring to check on me. I could phone the boy/man now if I wanted. Did our parents lie in their beds wondering? Did they worry about girls in cars with boys? Did they know that we chugged back cans of asphalt black Kalgoorlie Stout till the Broadway’s bathroom walls swayed in towards our brows?

I go to bed, but not to sleep. I think of alcohol being consumed by others and someone punching him hard in the face. I think of him perhaps wanting to come home but having to wait for his friend, the one with the Uber App, to be ready to leave. Will he be cold? I should have given him more instructions. Just the other day he couldn’t figure out how to open the shoe polish tin and asked me to do it for him. Have I done too much? His father says I have. So there we have it – a mother who has done too much and a father who has been too hard. The push and the pull.

At the assembly we sit close to the rows of Year 12 boys. They are spotty faced and embarrassed by the attention of their parents. Blazers are poor fitting and boys have haircuts called curtains that would displease the dapper principal. The Mark Knopfler track, Going Home starts and the year sevens get to their feet and silently move into position. Parents line the gym’s perimeter and are armed with their mobiles high in the air to catch the moment when their year 12 sons stand, the drums begin and they proceed out embraced by applause. Some mothers shed tears and wipe their eyes with tissues. I see the lacquered pink toenails of the woman beside me and her garish platform sandals. Is her son embarrassed by this?

I post the videos of the last school assembly and a picture of a him and a friend taken when they come back to the house, before going to the beach. His blazer is too short in the arms and too narrow across the back, but he has refused to buy a new one, with so little of school time left. His friend’s blazer is awkwardly large. The boy/man is cross with me for having posted and says I should ask his permission. But I refuse to take it down. It is my memory. It is for me that I post it. I have come through this too. It is a graduation from school volunteering, of sitting and applauding, of listening to prayers and not saying the Amen when others do.

From feeling the pang of leaving a small boy at a classroom entrance. to hearing he has been silent the whole day long. to watching as he trails behind the other lonely child. to wondering why he can’t read when others can and have him reveal that the class helper is on her phone when he reads aloud to her. to wanting to bat away another small child who has made yours not want to show his work at corroborree. to hearing that the male teacher yells at children who are only 10 years of age. to not getting a place in a special program and having to tell him so he runs away and hides in a wardrobe. to hear him say “but what about my career?” to waking up at night saying he is being attacked by numbers when he is in grade seven. to seeing him stand on the sideline and wait endlessly to be substituted in. to hearing he is delightful in class and always asks questions when he is unsure of what to do. to hearing that the deputy principal says he is the epitome of a CBC gentleman. all these pangs criss cross a mother’s heart. little stitches in precious thread.

The party is on the beach and they make a fire. There are girls and alcohol. He says he drinks water. I wonder how hard that might have been. I can’t tell. He gets home before midnight and can hear a murmur of conversation between him and his father who has stayed up. I have not slept. I have turned my phone off silent, just in case. I think next time I will ask for an address and give him a curfew.

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Rottnest Winter 2019

Rotto Bike

At short notice I book four nights at Rottnest.

Weather is predicted to be cloudy, raining and cold.

It is all those things. But damp and sodden, the trees turn Tolkien and the earth Hobbitville. Skies are dramatic and brooding to fit with the nature of the teenagers who accompany us. They move slowly, silently except for the synthetic shuffle of puffy jackets and the scrape of ugg boots. Their mouths barely change shape, thick lips hang slackly, despite the grunts that are coaxed from them. Their eyes sometimes glisten at their own jokes, shared between them and their phones. They are big, awkward and take up space – spread out on a couch each, while as parents we shrink, take up less and less space, sitting upright at the kitchen table, doing the nine letter word.

Today, as I look out from the kitchen table to the sea view beyond, the sky and sea meld together – like grey flax cloth – the small ripples on the water the imperfect French weave. There is a grumble of ocean, always. The Rottnest soundtrack. Unlike the summer months the people are sparse, hidden indoors, and hence the noise of humans is rare. Many chalets are closed up and empty. Old people and grandparents come, but families are mainly elsewhere. My facebook feed tells me they are following the sun. Doing cartwheels on beaches. Sipping Prosecco on Croatian balconies.

Here, we watch the storm clouds roll across the horizon and sheets of rain fall like curtains on the sea. Container ships still move with regularity across the straight horizon. We hear there has been a surge in the numbers of quokkas and they seem abundant, but sleepy. They curl themselves into a ball and tuck their heads into their bellies to sleep. Their scaly rat-like tail acts as a stabiliser. Heavy rain has meant they have drunk more than they would and this has changed their biome. Some are suffering poor cellulose digestion and a favourite quokka, who resides near the Longreach shop, is ill and weak. His name is Peanut. He has fallen to his side, cartoon-like, and three vets stand around him. Their expertise comes up wanting. One notes the poor body condition and how this does not look like an acute illness. The desire to give him water must be subdued. The ranger will collect him to see if anything can be done. Later we hear he has been revived, somewhat, and returned, replenished with the pulp from the juice extractor. 

In the settlement the seagulls remain fierce, swooping and stealing croissants right from your hand before a mouthful can be consumed. English women and their young girls in metallic coloured sneakers and plastic tiaras shriek about the persistent scavengers. They cover their food with napkins to get up from their table to get cutlery. A peacock hovers too. He fiercely attacks a quokka over a dropped morsel. In order for the mothers to drink their pink wine in peace the girls are watching Barbie on a propped up cell phone whilst intermittently squealing about a watchful bird. We move closer to the shore to escape them and they follow us.

In the evenings there is the Tour de France, Wimbledon and World Cup cricket. India, despite Dohni, is beaten by New Zealand. Riske nearly beats Serena. One night the boys, pillows in knapsacks, go to the cinema in the shed and see Rocket Man. Who would have thought that in 2019 I would have an Elton John song playing over and over in my mind.

At sunset we walk the coast to watch the sun shoulder its way through the clouds, leaving them bruised and longing. The salt lake, with the surprising name of Lake Baghdad, is full and the sun strikes its surface, so it glistens like polished brass. Pines make perfect tree cut-outs on the hills in the distance. The walls of the yellow cottages are more brilliant and the trunks of the stubborn trees are dark and wet. Their bark is gnarly and textured like the fur of creature intent on camouflage. Graham quotes Edward Hopper – “all I ever wanted was to capture sunlight on a wall.” And I think – all I ever wanted was to write about it. The bay is empty of boats and the beach person-less. A large pile of seaweed takes on the shape of a beached whale. Sometimes someone is bravely fishing from the jetty, but mainly it is barren too. 

Lake Baghdad


Story #1

for Jane

1987. It’s the year when Scott and Charlene get married on Neighbours. The year of the Hoddle street massacre. Bob Hawke is Prime minister and QLD premier Bjelke Peterson is losing his grip on the state. In November MacGyver is to be released on Channel 7. It is the start of summer. We listen to the Bangles Walk like an Egyptian. It is the start of the long dry.

I have just completed a University degree that has consumed my life and I am about to start a career. I imagine mud and striding through fields. I imagine pulling calves in khaki coveralls and scrapping cow dung from the soles of my boots. I dream of soaking in a tub when muscles are sore from physical work. This will be the fulfilment of a childhood dream.

Life changes in an instant. How is it that one back bone can be so brittle and another allow the cord to bungee? Who chooses which spinal cord you have and which way it will bend? Is it soft like liquorice or able to fracture into shards like candy?

Loss of  sensation is instantaneous. The swiftness of it disallows any savouring. Round and round the garden like a teddy bear. A mother’s finger tip makes spirals on the sole of chubby foot. One step, two step, tickle you under there. The touch creeps up the calf to beneath the knee. Movement and sensation here one minute. Gone, when the tin can strikes ancient wood. Such a banal way to lose what you have taken for granted since birth.

Moments before shoe-less feet had etched soles on squeaky sand by an ocean. The surf had thrown my body like a buoy and my heart had surged as my feet had lost contact with the sea floor. A bear of a man had surfed a long board and we had all traipsed sand into the little alfoil car. How long can skin recall the sensation of toes curling in yellow beach sand? Only the night before feet had found the cool patch on the sheets, and then cradled each other, before sleep. How long can a mind hold on to what is no longer possible?

An anatomy teacher visits the hospital and brings with him a bone. It is perfectly sculpted, as if it is made from polished pearl. He says it might be nice to hold, and he is right. It is snug in my palm. My fingers trace the valley of the bone, lie gloved by the trochlear groove. The fact that it is the talus of a horse, an animal I will never treat nor sit astride again, brings tears I let fall, after he has gone. I picture myself running a confident palm down the side of a mare’s leg and cupping her hoof. I feel the warmth from her nostrils as she turns to inspect the back of my neck with a snort. I smell the pasture on her breath.

A country vet, across the continent, is the first to take me on. He has no sense of what I can and can’t do and that is likely a blessing. He is the type to give someone a go because someone he trusted has said I can do it, and that someone is Jane. A blonde bob, brown eyes, strong thighs and tanned muscled arms. She has a kind of bolshie.  She believes in me. She, too, has no idea. We are three people, inexperienced in paraplegia, and how that transects with being a veterinarian. We know little of what it means to a life either. When I arrive she collects me from the airport and drives me to her home, where she carries me, like a new bride, into the house and then leaves me for the weekend trapped hopelessly by the three meagre steps to the outside.

Before heading across the country a surgery teacher says I should come in and do a bitch spay in the Uni lab – just to check I can. After scrubbing up, betadine dripping from my elbows, I sit at the sink unable to move forward – someone will need to propel me from here. We discover some things are more difficult seated. The surgery table is hard to get under and besides it won’t go low enough. It can never go lower than my lap. I do surgery with my elbows out, like an ill-mannered child seated at the big persons’ table. It is the beginning of becoming a dependant again, in the eyes of others. My chest feels perilously close to the incision and I am, maybe, leaning and breathing into the surgery site more than someone would standing. But doing it is all we are checking for here. It can be done, and so it will. Rick says I can.

In the country the surgery table is difficult to get under too, with its large circular base – so I do my surgeries with the animals as close to sliding over the edge as possible, legs draped across the side, like shirt sleeves off an ironing board. Sometimes the single nurse and I are not able to move a heavy patient, so we time the surgery with the approach of the postman, and ask him to assist with the transfer. I am doing operations partially blind, as an incision in a big dog’s belly is level with my chest. But having done it no other way means I judge it is no harder than it should be. It is just what it is.

Jane and I are both new graduates, but she has six months of veterinary experience on me. I have six months experience of paraplegia and the internal walls of a spinal unit. I have learnt a lot about ceilings and how interesting they can be. I have counted the perforations in ceiling tiles and watched spiders spin webs. I have stared at nothing till nothing becomes something and then turns to nothing again. From a blue cloudless sky I have made poems on hue. From overheard conversations and inhaled smells I have constructed lives. I look differently at the small things and hear whole novels when only a word was whispered.

As vets, Jane and I are learning together, and she is my teacher. We both make mistakes – we are often alone, making them without knowing we are making them. Only later do they slip out from their mirage and reveal themselves – late at night mostly, alone and in a single bed. Sometimes we see the error before it is too late, and other times we are saved by the experience of the boss or the equally experienced vet nurse, Edna. Returning from lunch, I see my boss is doing the pyometra surgery I had placed on a drip without diagnosing.

At the end of a day I wheel the hundred yards home to my single bedroom flat on the same street as the clinic. Often I am swooped by magpies who distrust me, like they do stone throwing children. The flat has orange carpet tiles, the type to prickle beneath a bare foot. I toast bread under the grill and spread it thickly with peanut paste. On call, I answer queries about farm animals I have no experience of, other than as an undergraduate, and offer a disgruntled farmer advice to get him through till morning. I flip through Blood and Henderson for a respectable answer. I watch one-day-cricket. I wheel to the laundromat with a bag of washing on my lap. Weekly I slide across the red vinyl bench seat of the EH and drive along the Murray to the big town, The Smiths wailing from the tape cassette. Girlfriend in a coma. I buy myself a cappuccino and a piece of over-iced carrot cake.

The red-headed lad, who has never had a girlfriend, is consigned to me by Jane. We go to a Divinyls gig in a nearby town. He secures me a space at the side of the stage so I can see Chrissie Amphlett astride and thrusting her pelvis into her microphone stand. He stands just behind me and places a hand on the chair like it is any other bit of furniture. But it is not a chair. It is becoming part of me and I will him to unhand it. I view the crowd. I hate that people are able to dance, to crush up against each other and feel another person’s moving hips, sweating against them.

I stay in the country for nine months till the pain of the metal in my spine becomes too much. It wants out. I return west to my port town to have it removed, as the bone has repaired itself to a gnarly fist, and the metal is no longer functional. Who knows what the cord within the bone is doing. Perhaps it has hunkered down in its den of bone and sleeps on. I keep the shiny stainless steel nuts and screws, like spare buttons, in a cracked porcelain cup.

I apply for a job at the Uni I studied at, thinking that equal opportunity means what it says. The job is the pathology internship and will require that I post mortem animals of all sorts. Three middle aged men, tweed jackets with patches on their elbows, invite me in to see if I can complete a post mortem, unaided.  They walk away and leave me with the corpse of a horse, stiff on the slab. I feel so small. I cannot physically complete the task and I can feel the tears, the heat in my face, the crack in my voice. They stand watching, rocking back and forth on the balls of their feet, waiting till I withdraw my application. They say it is better you see for yourself that you can’t do it.

1992. Apartheid is ending in South Africa. Charles and Diana are separating. Native title is recognised in Australia and Paul Keating is Prime Minister.

Alone, I am listening to Nirvana’s NeverMind. I decide I will learn to walk with callipers, as it is something that can be done. It is hard, takes physical and emotional strength, to keep trying to do it, day after day. I rupture all the ligaments in my ankle learning to fall. The tarsal bones slip over each other, like pebbles in a sock. I practice for six months with a young, enthused dark-haired physio and in the end can make about fifty metres. I see that walking with callipers is not walking. It is not freedom. It is lumbering and more disabling even than the wheelchair. Being upright is not giving me anything back. It is precarious and pointless, and I give it away.

In a house with polished jarrah boards and freshly painted white walls Smells Like Teen Spirit is loud and I can sway my upper body, with my arms above my head and with my eyes closed, I am dancing, as I was before. My chair is spinning, silent and fast leaving my hands free. It can dance. It can take me back there, where the memories still synapse.

2019. From my kitchen window I view the neighbour’s child swinging, upside down on the stair rails that lead to the oval. Her legs and feet monkey the hand rail.  Her hair gravitates to the earth. A smaller brother kicks his footy into the canopy of a tree and the flimsy branches nestle the ball. She runs over and leaps towards the branch, grabbing it and swinging on the bough. Her weight causes the ball to dislodge and fall to the ground. They run off.

Rottnest 2017

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It’s all about the silence. Although it isn’t silent when you listen. There is the slap of the sea – constant, background. There is the screech of children. Sometimes a meltdown from the chalet behind. And always the bang of screen doors. There is the latch on the gate, the diesel hum of boat motors, the flip flop of thongs on bitumen. There is the crash of glass bottles entering the recycling bins, the whistle of a boatie to the landlubbers on shore. A father chastises a son for talking back and a mother attempts to smear sunscreen on a wriggling, moaning child. But there are only a few cars. There is a rubbish truck. There are no horns or sirens. There are bicycle bells. There are few telephones ringing, except for those timing the cooking of the pasta.

Rottnest.

The Cairns – they come every second year. They wish for yearly. They are Sydney-siders. Big city people, but lovers of the simplicity of Rottnest. We will always have Rottnest. Rottnest has seen new partners, seen pregnancies and babies added. Beds have been upgraded with bed runners and better mattresses. New tiles, new lights (still too bright), a change in couches (too hard) and outdoor balcony seating. We no longer can move a couch from the chalet onto the balcony, so instead order a foldaway bed and install it out there. The Cairns have a three-bedder and so an expanse of balcony and extra large kitchen and fridge. The three-bedder is looking very good. Another Perth mother arrives with a lanky girl child. She makes wonderful curry and goes to Mass. She talks about her street where she has moved from the wealthy to the poor side, since splitting with her husband, and how wonderfully refreshing the poor side is. They have a gifting shelf in their laneway where people exchange all manner of books and knick knacks. Since separating she has brought back inside a beloved Jarrah table, a family treasure, which was relegated to life on the porch in the home she shared with her husband. A teenager has not come this year – but two small boys are now two older boys, only inches apart. Still boys. Still lovers of cricket and riding their bikes.

Day One Monte stacks it in front of the Visitor centre and requires fixomull to a scraped knee. His diabetes is no longer new. His pump gives him and his parents freedom from needles, but still requires the input of calculations and knowledge of what has been eaten and of how much carbohydrate it contains. It is second nature to Monte to count everything that goes into his mouth. Every chip, every BBQ Shape. “26 Shapes Mumma.” He has a record low of 1.8 one day on the balcony, appearing to the adults unlike himself, a callow meek Monte declares, “I am Low.” Low he is. He is told to sit. Troy gets juice from the fridge and two glasses are downed. In minutes he is back to over 6. We, the diabetes rookies, are nervous and ill-equipped. The parents and the child have it all down pat. No one panics. Juice and jubes and the blood glucose is back on track.

Monte, diabetes or not, is determined to do well. He is competitive with everything. He aims to be the best. He is sore at losing and when things don’t appear fair. He is like a wind-up toy with an Ever Ready battery. He keeps going despite being red-faced and hot. Sometimes his face folds and he hides himself under a Turkish towel on the beach. Sometimes he won’t swim. “Chop Chop young son,” is called to Troy as he stand up paddle boards towards the shore, after-all another man is required on the cricket pitch.

Raff is a harder nut to crack. Brilliant light blue eyes and wry smile. Tells it like it is. He says he is bored, but also that he is having the best time. He rejects the application of sunscreen or the wearing of a hat. He plays cricket but won’t watch it on the telly. He loves school and can’t wait for the holidays to end so he can go back. Both boys love Jasper and he plays with them well, with a patience he does not have for his parents. On the last night they play a game where they must search for each other while trying to get home to the base without being caught. Raff: “The most intense game ever.”

Nostalgic treat – original Tim Tams and Neapolitan Ice-cream.

Middle aged couple pre dinner and lunch time cocktail – Aperol Spritz.

Typical discussion – ailments, need to reduce alcohol consumption, difficulty with reducing alcohol consumption, lack of interest and desire in decreasing alcohol consumption, how lack of alcohol just makes them cranky.

Milly’s laugh – “howabouthoseeagles”

Troy’s story – Snoopy (said with a lisp) and Mr Michaels.

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My lip is burnt and it makes me touch it. I worry it with my front teeth.

Like the teenagers. They too have burnt lips. Mothers give them cream, similar to what used to be applied to nappy rash. We swim at Little Parakeet and are joined by other old friends. They too chaperone teenagers. We reminisce briefly at what Rotto was like when our children were babies. When at nighttime they slept and we barbecued attached to baby monitors. They have a teen girl who has taken to “Fuck you” and giving them the finger. We have a sullen, string bean boy. More broody and somber. Disdainful of questions. Irked by any attempt of mine at humour or dance. Even if it will only be seen by him. My mere swaying with the beat can send him into a frenzy of STOP MUM. Strangely it only makes me want to dance more.

So. Two middle-aged couples on the beach while our teens roam about the beach, without energy, without vim. Sapped. Arms flop about their bodies like lifeless limbs. A French couple squabbles with a small boy having a tantrum on the sand. An open hand strikes the boy. Leave him be, we all think. It is easy to parent from afar, when you are not in the thick of it. Perspective is clear, a way forward, so easy to see. But when you are amongst it, not so much. What should you do when they unleash the “fuck you” we ask, but never seem to get an answer. Perhaps they too, don’t know. I guess we will muddle through, like we have with all the previous parenting woes, only to find out later that, despite trying our best, there was indeed a less painful way. Later we joke we don’t know which we would prefer – the fuck you or the silent moping. They tell the story of threatening to remove teen girl’s bedroom door if it was slammed one more time. Slammed hard. Makita comes out. Door hinges unscrewed. Later, on opening their own bedroom door it nearly falls off as teen girl has loosened its screws with a Stanley knife. Touché, thinks Dad. A valid response to authority.

Then comes Australia day.

I love Australia, but not when it’s shoved in my face. I don’t like balconies festooned with triangles of Australian flags. I don’t like boats with massive billowing flags fit for a parliamentary flagpole. Boats anchor – A Salt Weapon, Reel Xtreme. I don’t like Aussie Crawl played over and over again, or Men at Work, whilst middle-aged men in Australian flag hats and boardies sit with a beer and sing the chorus and play air drums. Later said man will wander from the beach to the shops and take a piss on the brick stairs between the chalets. Choice. When two blondes, fresh from their shower, with large glasses of white wine pass under our balcony to join the Men at Work boat, I ask politely if they might relay the message to turn their music down. The glare – long and hard eyed, the clenching of their teeth somewhere behind their closed lips, the lack of a verbal response, the cackle when they reach their friends, their pointing me out as “that lady on the balcony” was all a tacit agreement that we do no longer (if we ever did) like each other. It makes me think of dogs and their mostly excellent reading of each other’s body language. As humans – we think we rely on verbal cues – but we are just as much influenced by a look, a small movement of the lip or eyebrow. So in dog language we gave each other the “look away.” Don’t mess with me.

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On the mainland it is sweltering. A seaplane, supposed to be part of the sky show ahead of the fireworks, turns without enough speed for a hot windless day, a wing dips, a motor stalls, and it plunges like a poorly made paper plane, into the river, killing pilot and passenger. We think of Big Steve (back in the US) and of his job sorting out the cause of any similar “fatal.” G says he would hate the way a passenger died, because of a pilot’s inexperience.

The sky did its thing tonight. After a hot day the storm clouds have arrived and made a sunset of rose and mauve. The wind, which was playing havoc with the Big Bash TV reception, decided to fade and allow some uninterrupted viewing. It must be hot on the mainland. Cricketers are sweating. The distant lighthouse stood solid and beige while the sky all around changed and morphed. A big white voluminous cloud puffed itself up and all around it other darker clouds swirled and spread. The sea turned from soft mohair blue to beaten pewter. My raised stinger welt begins to itch. The fan ticks.

I dream that I am entering a lift as someone with a thin whippet style dog is exiting. Some how there is a cavernous gap between the landing and the lift and of course, as it always is in dreamland, this is not abnormal or a surprise. What is shocking is that as the man leaps across the dark and endless gap but the dog does not. He, then at one side and the dog still in the lift, urges the skinny thing to jump across to him and as it does so he pulls on its leash and its head slips loosely from the collar and the flimsy dog disappears into the dark. A thump is heard as it hits the bottom and then nothing. It is somehow my fault, in my heart, that this dog was afraid to jump, failed to jump, didn’t leave with the man. I wake up, annoyed and made itchy by the stinger welt across my chest. I itch it. Stop. Itch some more. Think of John Turturro in The Night Of.. and wish for a pointed knitting needle. Itch some more.

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Beach Baby

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Daily I walk the port. It remains cold, despite the onset of spring. A biting wind. The dog has been let off his leash more lately, but, having found the odd chicken bone or two he has taken to wandering away and searching for himself. After all what is more fun than scrounging. Innate dog. His recall is dwindling and it will need some reinforcing with roast chicken of my own.

Still. Nose to the ground he is searching the grassed areas where people tend to eat and leave their scraps. I see him, triumphant, munching, rudely open-mouthed, on something. Ignoring me. Lead back on. We walk the boardwalk by the beach.

 

I see a couple – the man has a baby held to his chest. It looks just born – its hair still plastered down like it has freshly emerged from an egg sack. Even from a distance there’s a newly hatched wetness to its slick of black hair. His large hand cups its skull and presses it into that dip between his neck and shoulder.

I think of the wind assaulting it, pushing at its eyelids. On the beach a woman (the mother, I guess) is in all black – leotards and top – and has her legs wide apart and is stretching to her side, this way, then that. He moves around her with the baby jiggling and thrusting its hungry head into his udderless shoulder. Skin-warmth the vaguest of similarities. Leotard is intent on her exercise – staring straight out into the ocean, her hair an angry blonde storm.

The man has baggy brown pants on – probably cheesecloth – and they bristle in the wind. He has long white arms. I wonder how much fun they are having. He looks cold, but ever so patient. I wonder if they have argued about her time, his time. I wonder if this is her saying I need this space. His way of making it up to her after a suburban meltdown.

Take the baby home, I think. Wrap it in warmth. Soothe it with mohair and mother, real milk. It makes me recall my own mother – shocked at the fact that new mothers no longer have a lying in period – where they stay home, after the birth, and simply look after the newborn, propped up in bed with a mountain of pillows, feed sleep feed. I am turning into my mother. Enough exercise already.

I think of Alain de Botton’s new novel The Course of Love and his writing, “love is a skill and not an enthusiasm.” This father has skill, standing back in the dunes watching the mother bend and twist. He hunkers down so the baby is protected and waits. He waits while she struts the sand. Punching it with the soles of her perfect feet. Asking the world why? More bending.

Still. I think do your yoga, eat your chia, somewhere else, somewhere warm. Leave the seaweed-strewn beach that is cold and bitter to walkers of dogs with thick coats. Dogs made for wind and rain.

Pakenham Living

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First two days in the studio.

 

Murphy makes his grumph grumph noises at some of the passersby, but mainly he is relaxed, despite the heavy noise of the street traffic just outside his door. He is happily urinating on the street on the nearest pole. He had a zoomie on Bathers Beach as the denim surf frothed and the wind whipped around.

 

I speak to the peroxided hairdresser as she smokes a cigarette on the street and compliments Murphy on the hues in his fur, make friends with the Bread N Common waitress from whom I buy my salami flute and have coffee at the High Street Dispensary sitting with my face tilted toward the winter sun.

 

Nightly drunks and carousers holler up the sidewalk. Swear and swerve, stumble and scream. Every morning the street sweepers clean up after them, but the bin is over flowing and the rubbish men are not due, and so a raven does his best to empty it, signalling to his other raven mates to come and feast at the dish of human detritus, dropping what they don’t want on the bitumen. Road = crow canvas.

 

I have discovered that butter (anything other than Watsonia) can be bought at Kakulas Sister for a high price and regular linguini is out the front. Despite the fact that the serving women are sour and I feel invisible in there, I purchase.

 

My hands are dry from too much water and Jiff. I have googled how to remove paint stains from hard wood floors. Rubbing alcohol.

 

I have cleaned the walls and the blinds to the height I can reach but there is so much beyond that I cannot. Not till I purchase the extendable duster. Joy.

 

I have no television and so I watch Masterchef on my computer and follow the Tour on the tour tracker. The radio is my companion.

I query the bill from builder for the skip bins and the services disconnection and feel a sense of bewilderment that we are spending so much money on a house renovation when we can easily live like this, in the small studio, with a very limited amount of stuff and not many possessions.

How we complicate our lives with stuff.

How mouse-in-a-wheel-like it all gets – this owning and then wanting more and more of it. And then, finding nowhere to put it, we decide to throw it out and start again.

It is simple here today. I have my old sink, not thrown out, sliced in two by handy men, but still the familiar sink I have scrubbed at for twenty years. Its grain like aged wood. I have scrubbed it when I am happy, and I have scrubbed it when I am sad. At our neighbour’s their corner sink meant it was not an easy sink for me. I could not reach into it and so never laboured at it. Besides, they had a dishwasher.  Here I am returned to succour of stainless steel scrubbing.

 

The laminex table too has been resurrected. Thankfully it was never discarded. Stored in an attic with other one days. It is mottled tomato red and white. It has shapely silver legs like a 1950’s screen siren, but its top is solid and dutiful. It is milk bar, country town. Graham and I worked at it years ago sorting through black and white prints on Ilford paper. Pored over strips of negatives on light boxes. Now a small transistor sits on it playing the local station’s football coverage. Sydney vs Geelong and Sydney need to lower their eyes. What does that even mean?

 

The men and boys will be out of the winter weather by now. They left at 3 am while the road was still wet and black and the traffic had stopped. I listened to the car start up and drive off and then fell back to sleep till Murphy woke me barking at the some dogs at his door. How dare they sniff.

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I sleep fitfully. One minute hot – throwing back the doona and pancaking myself on the cool side of the bed, feeling the icy sheets on the insides of my arms, then turning cold and snuggling back down, only to find myself hot again another hour on. The rain keeps the revellers down. Still I wake at five and take the dog out, watch the lights of the street sweeper advance up the road towards us, sucking the paper cups and used napkins off the gutter.

Today I discover the Italian coffee maker won’t work on induction. I set up the lap top camera to record Murphy while I duck out to the shops. When I return I see I have made a mistake and not recorded a thing. Later I try again and go for a short outing to the second hand bookshop to purchase a book I had seen in the window called the The Last Little Cat. (Books are never unworthy purchases.) But when I flick through it it isn’t what I had hoped and so I decide not to buy it. I look at the other books and stumble across a 1934 edition of Dogs and Their Management and in it find such sage advice as Do not fidget an Invalid – do what is necessary quietly, gently and quickly, and then leave him alone; no glaring lights or suffocating heat as well as nutritional advice such as Sheep’s brains boiled in milk is nourishing and makes a tempting food: it is a little relaxing.

 

I listen to Radio National – a balm for the soul – a man talks about his love of walking – initially as an escape from a brutal childhood hiding away in wilderness morphs into connecting with nature and healing his past. The treading becomes deeply spiritual. He gets stuck in scrub and only goes 100 metres in an hour. Scrub so thick he couldn’t see the sky. His drawl is strangely hypnotic as he describes the country that he meanders and struggles through. The pocket doc finishes and there is no time to reflect before the news tells of the Dallas sniper who shot five policemen in retaliation for black deaths earlier in the week. If only the sniper had discovered his solace in walking. Or in sink scrubbing.

 

 

 

 

My Beautiful Laundrette

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This was a hip movie when I was a student but probably not many people would remember it these days. It was also written by one of my favourite writers, Hanif Kureshi. It made being in a North London laundrette something you could feel good about.

When you think of laundromats you think of student days. You think of late nights and weekends spent watching the blur of jeans and t shirts. But I am middle aged. But still in possession of a broken front loader. Its breaking started with a difference to the quality of the sound of the spin before it gave up with a belly full and spewed it out undigested, wet and heavy. It worked again once more on gentle spin, then after that died completely. Not even a spray of WD 40 to the door catch did a thing. Now it is a block of useless heavy machinery in our bathroom – waiting for the next bring out your dead.

I go to a laundrette to find it no longer offers self serve. Probably haven’t operated that way for three years – too much vandalism, says the woman taking a delivery of business shirts from the arms of a customer, as I look searchingly around the room at the silent, disused washers with piles of named packaged clothes upon each one. I know I will not want to pay her to wash my pile of dirty laundry, but I ask – out of interest. Looks like two loads, she says. Thirty six dollars.

She directs me to another laundromat I had never noticed, but I drive on by when I see it has steps. I know one without steps. It is twenty minutes away, but the drive is familiar and never feels long. Down roads that I once peddled my bike with a transistor strapped to the handlebars. Afternoon Delight on the radio, a White Knight slowly dissolving in my mouth, as I ride the bitumen in the hot sun. I never tire of these streets. The smell of them.

The laundromat is called a laundrobar, but of course has no bar. I expect students. No one is there. One machine is in use – all the others are vacant and free with their lids up saying come feed me. It is five dollars for a load and two machines are labelled as taking both $2 and $1 coins. I figure they are the new machines and so use them although they all look identical. I imagine developing a rapport with a machine and wanting to come back to this particular one. Like the favourite seat on a bus, on the train, in the cinema. Such a creature of habit.

A small Indian man enters and asks me about self serve dry cleaning. I say I have never heard of that. It is very expensive otherwise, he says. Yes I imagine. He wears a checked woollen scarf tied around his neck despite the fact it is nearly forty outside. The drier makes the laundrette hot too and I wonder what mental illness he might have to ask about dry cleaning and be wearing a scarf in this heat. I decide to tell him how the normal washing process happens in case his choice of words was incorrect and he really just wants to do a regular wash. He listens to me drone on about how to use a washer and a drier and then says politely yes so No dry cleaning here and turns and walks away.

I think of the laundrettes I have used. The time spent watching clothes fall about themselves in a drier. It is dead time. But still beautiful. They appear to dance, but be boneless too. All flesh and jiggle. I am distracted by my phone, but stop myself scrolling through Facebook and instead watch the clothes do their disco in the machine. There are the clothes of a partner and a son in there. Spinning. I fold underpants, not mine. I think how in my youth it was always just my stuff. The regretful pang at a loved t-shirt shrunk by the intense heat of the drier. Not responsible for anyone but myself. How easy it is to care for yourself. When you are one.

 

 

 

 

 

Rottnest 2016

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I am reading Carol by Patricia Highsmith. It is not Rottnest. It is Manhattan 1950’s. Still. It is moody, full of cocktails, road trips, hotel lobbies, minks, telegrams. People spend time in libraries. Under the fan in the bedroom with the ocean view, by the lap lap of the waves I read it, every now and then pausing to view a yacht slowly make its way across the screen created by the window. G has removed the flyscreen so the view is clear and unpixellated by the mesh.

 

Smoke haze obstructs the horizon as the mainland burns. Often there is that feeling here. That over there something catastrophic has happened and you’ve all been blown away – but here on Rottnest we are none-the-wiser and continue on, oblivious to your fate. We will do okay till the shop runs out of supplies and then it will turn to chaos here too. Smoke is thick so the silhouette of the city is gone. The twinkle of lights peters out. In a sudden shift the wind turns and the boats swing around to face the ocean and a squall makes a mess of the once smooth surface. From slick to rippled. From the balcony I can see into the cabin of a stinker and see he too watches the Big Bash on his wide screen.

 

We are here with teenagers. They sleep late and often have to be woken and prodded to rise from their beds. They have sunburnt lips, leave their shorts on the floor in the kitchen, lose stuff, drink too much juice and serve out way too much Nutragrain. They take several showers a day, leave the light and fan on and have to be reminded to not use a new glass every time they need a sip of water. They have moments of sullenness and answer everything with the same indignant huffiness. They are able to wash the dishes (once a day), take the rubbish out (after being asked) and get supplies from the shop. They call each other old boy. Sometimes it is hard to tell if they are having a good time or not. It is so not cool to be enthusiastic or smile, except at each other. They have banded together like we are some common enemy and I remember doing something similar with my sister against our parents. An us and them approach to the family holiday.

 

I want to grab him and hold him close. I see mothers on the beach with toddlers wrapped about their torsos – their chubby thighs clinging intently to their mothers’ sides. Not that he ever did that. He never has liked to be held and hugged. So that after a while you no longer even try to touch him. You just give up. You tell yourself that it’s not his thing- he’s not huggy. And when you see other boys hug their mothers you think lucky you.

 

There is a screeching child in a boat off shore. The noise penetrates my colouring-in. Yes really. It seems my fifty plus brain has a new found intolerance to such a noise. Somewhere from deep inside the description grizzle pot bubbles to the surface and I am reminded of being called that by my own parents when I squawked my discomfort at some minor thing.

 

They say the job of parents is to create happy memories. These become the trust account for the later adult to draw upon – but I think how the brain is hard wired to remember most of all what is frightening, new and extreme. It is designed to deeply recall the things that threaten safety. Given the new safety of children and the need felt by parents to make childhood safe how will they remember theirs – a blanche mange of juice and chocolate.

On the day of the thunderstorms one boy has burnt his bottom lip so badly that it blisters and the other nearly faints in Subway. This they may remember.

 

Teenage brains are also primed to seek danger and risk and at no other time is the brain ripe like it is to the addictive pull of dopamine – driving forth the need to have it flood the brain. It is why the teenager is apt to be able to learn and desire in both good and bad ways with more abandon and passion than at any other time. It is why alcohol is consumed and drugs tried in excess and the background worries of parents seem small and mundane to the dopamine-fuelled teenagers. What can possibly be more important than feeling this alive? Memories made at this time are more indelible, fixed like they happened yesterday. That first grope in with a Hale boy in a bungalow at Thompsons. The smell of coconut tanning lotion. White bread from the bakery spread with Vegemite. Phoning my mother from the pay phone, as requested. That tequila sunrise at the Quokka Arms. When the brain is fuelled with dopamine anything seems possible and whatever created the release is well remembered by the addictive brain. It seems we all have one –a brain that seeks pleasure as its primary aim – it is just important to have the right drug ready for them – with any luck they fall passionately in love with art, politics, music, sport, the environment – rather than the heady pursuits of drug taking.

 

It took only seven minutes for the small town of Yarloop to incinerate. It was the kind of fire that made the sky wonderful at Rottnest. It was a timber town and now nothing remains but scorched earth and bits of blistered sheet metal. Pictures from the air make it look like something built of cards that with one puff is blown over. Residents wish to start over, despite the pain. It seems the human desire to keep rebuilding and creating cannot be stymied by bushfire.


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Hospital Corridors

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Some people like airports and railway stations and shopping malls and art galleries.

Some people don’t like hospitals.

I do. I love them. All of them. Old ones, new ones, empty ones, full ones.

I see curing, healing, surviving. I see endless helping. When I visit a hospital I see people engaged in the pursuit of other people’s happiness. A selflessness. I know there is pain and death and lingering (inattentive staff and plain human error) but somehow the flip side still pushes through to me. It is what I feel.

In the corridor of Charlie’s art is secured to the wall. No one ponders it. It does its best to draw attention to itself. Large canvases. Orange vinyl chairs sit empty. The spaces are large and often vacant, like everyone is suddenly well. Once, new, the corridors were carpeted with a dark heavy-duty material but eventually that folly was replaced with linoleum roadways and I imagine orderlies pushing beds, two abreast, being able to race. Wide corridors. Being able to make donuts with hospital beds.

The hospital has old parts pretending to be closed. But then someone is seen in an office behind venetians. In the back-end there are old entrances, closed. Salmon brick and baby blue facade. Beside them sits an assortment of chairs, broken or bent and left out to rust or be stolen. No one does, because no one wants a disused hospital chair.

Do I love them because they are always ramped? Made for me. Even the old ones. Masonite ramps, too steep. Covered walkways that still let the weather in.

Once I visited a friend in Royal Perth and on leaving ran into a doctor I knew. He took me through emergency and out onto the roof top where the doctors hung out on their breaks. A few old chairs looked out over the railway line and the roof tops of old buildings. The sun shone there, and in secret, warmed their faces. In white coats they brought their coffee and took in the air. Some probably had a smoke. I felt lucky to have been up there with them. Like kids sneaking behind the bike shed at school.

At Fiona the staff don’t have their own canteen. So instead they eat with the public at the cafes strewn throughout the central courtyard. In their baggy green scrubs and forgotten paper shower caps. It makes life-saving seem so very ordinary, buying cappuccino, between laparotomies.

When I was little my mother took me to nursing homes and hospitals on the weekends visiting various decrepit members of the extended family. It captivated me. I liked to peer into spaces that seemed hidden. I liked the way strange and repugnant smells stung the inside of your nose. Methylated spirits. Why does all hospital food only smell of boiled broccoli? I wanted to know what happened behind the pulled curtain. My mother always went to the flower room to fill a vase and arrange the flowers she brought from her garden. She always knew where to go and get stuff and how to speak to nurses to get things done. Even then I knew this was a skill.

 

by Graham Miller
by Graham Miller

 

Rottnest 2015

 

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Mini Murmurations.

 

Starlings do this thing. Instantaneously. Like a sheet shaken out. About to be laid over a bed. Thrown into the sky in one action. Graham is sitting on the arm of the couch on the balcony trying to capture the moment on his iPhone. It escapes him every time. They are alerted by. What? No one can work it out. Milly is sent to startle and throws sticks into the casuarina. They do not stir. Then, when no one is ready they fling themselves into the sky, light, like screwed up tissues. All a flutter. One flies into the house, attempts an escape through the fly screen but then crashes into a glass plane. It lies momentarily stunned on the cork floor tiles. Graham scoops it from the ground and releases it. The starling flies off, uninjured.

Later, back on the mainland it is discovered ( by Graham) that the birds are not Starlings since they only live on the east coast and perhaps the bird most likely is a Swallow – the Welcome Swallow.

January in Rottnest is new for us. A decade of trips in November during school term has come to an end since private school demands attendance, especially during exams. It is warmer than our usual holidays. Every day a cloudless blue sky with predictable easterly winds that change to south-westerly by the afternoon. No blankets required at night. Warm enough to inhabit the balcony all night long.

 

As we enter Longreach we sense a difference, but it takes us a few moments to realise what the difference is. Have some trees been removed? The rear brick fences of the chalets have been cut down, so a brick fence only a few feet high surrounds each yard. Everything on view. Bikes and the detritus of beach life. There is a feeling of over-exposure, less privacy. It takes us a few days to adjust, and then it is as if there has always been low fences. More cricket is played on the street. More view for the barbecuers. Not liking the change, turns to liking it, forgetting it was any other way.

 

Monte – pale, nuggetty, five years old. Bullish. Exuberant for life. He moves so fast that often he almost topples on the turn, but rights himself before he falls. He has only just learnt to ride a bike, but needs no trainer wheels, and can make the steepest hill. He perfects the skid. He needs someone to tighten the string of his swimming shorts and to tie his shoelaces, but he knows to check before he eats anything and to ask how many can he have. How many chips Mamma?

Monte has been a type 1 Diabetic for a few years now. He has a pump that feeds the insulin directly into him, so there is rarely a need for needles. The pump is carried in a pouch, like a traveller’s wallet. A five-year old, like an astute tourist in a dangerous land.

 

I’m low, says Monte.

 

Mother Milly has become an adept reader of her son’s endocrinology. From marketing to maths. From regular mother to someone who understands the intricacies of a disease and a physiological process because it is the condition her child has. She has no choice but to become fully informed. Like being on a roller coaster, sometimes she panics, but there is still no getting off it. She has to open her mouth and holler, fling her arms in the air and then cease, get a grip, and hang onto the carriage, ride the thing till it comes to a stop at the end. Her child is with her and she has to take the plunge too. She has learnt that other mothers are interested, only in as much as they want to know how she saw the disease develop. What were his symptoms? Perhaps they have a child that may one day be afflicted. But when it comes to understanding more, she sees them glaze over.

 

Monte, denied an adventure with the big boys pleads his case, Hugo can take the diabetes bag.

 

The diabetes bag is the lifeline to all that is going on in the world of Monte’s blood glucose. Seemingly only a moment away from being too high or too low. Despite the technology of a pump there is still the required calculations to make. All through the day he is being tested and the insulin amount dialled in. Both parents have become skilled in the area of nutrition and glycemic index, of calculating the amount of insulin that is required to counteract the food just consumed. Sides of packets are read for their sugar content. But still there are the inevitable fluctuations that result in a low. Luckily Monte can tell his own symptoms. He can feel a tingling is his legs. Milly is always at the ready with a jelly baby or an orange juice. At the peak of the Longreach hill, on the way to the settlement, the mother and son are beside the road with bikes laid over. Amongst the tall grasses they sit and a skin prick to a finger tells her, “No, you are not low – it is just the hill. It has exhausted us all.”

 

The day we leave Fremantle a fire takes hold of the bushland and suburbs of Bullsbrook. It is too late to leave. Leaving now will result in death. Take refuge in a room with two doors…. The radio makes its familiar emergency notice. The one that gets the hairs on your arms rising. The bush fire takes days to control and stains the horizon with its billowing smoke. It feels like the world has imploded across the water. Perhaps we will spend the rest of our lives on the island. At night the orange of the flames can be seen. Smoke still in the morning.

 

Beach cricket. Monte has the prekindergarten child’s inability to lose gracefully. He can never understand why he is out. It is never fair. It is always too early or Hugo is being too hard. But before the game begins they shake on “being out means no tears.” No downside mouth turns. Handshakes aside, tears still flow.

Rafferty is only slightly bigger than the younger Monte. They could be confused as twins. The older boys call him the Raffinator, but the nick name is ironic for this small boy’s aim is not destruction or leadership. He exists in his alone world, riding his bike single mindedly up and down the road, or searching the beach for shells that resemble letters to make words, or checking his newly purchased soft toys for defects in the stitching. He speaks in a husky, beyond-his-years voice with iridescent blue eyes and the closest he gets to eating lettuce is rubbing it against his tongue. I want a T-shirt that reads I love Raff.

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The teenage boys are sinewy and brown. They are bullied into washing up, into emptying a bin or two. When their sheets make their way onto the floor they sleep on bare mattresses. They lose stuff. They forget stuff. They leave piles of wet belongings like snakes shed skin. They hold themselves away from you when you ask for a hug. You remember them young and their bodies soft. You remember them telling you where it hurt. When they told you stuff. Before they rolled their eyes when you spoke. They now know the island like it is a second home. They make their own movies, take their own pictures, post to their own instagram accounts. They are forging their own Rottnest. They can ride every hill with ease and speed. They can have a stack and not cry. Let a bubble of blood form a clot on their knee, and not ask you for a bandaid. They can walk off on their own to be on the jetty whilst you order a meal at the pub. When their food arrives he cannot be located and you begin to imagine yourself as Harrison Ford in Frantic. Then, the speck of him is there, slowly returning up the beach. Just walking Mum. They spend the afternoons in their room with their headphones and their technology, but still are drawn into the beach cricket games, the beach paddle ball competition, the snorkelling and endless trips to the Geordie shop to purchase sweets and ice creams. Making memory of beach, of summer, of family. Salting their veins.

 

Bus ride – once the island had trees before the need for fuel. Then the trees were felled and burnt and now the island is barren and scrubby. Volunteers still plant. Little squares of plastic mark their progress. So easy to cut down and plunder. So much harder to regrow.

 

At night we have various cocktails made with Campari or Aperol, Prosecco and Cinzano Rossi. It is our first year requiring the presence of a jigger from the mainland. Teenagers are sent to the shops for oranges so slices can adorn the drinks. Then we play Cards against Humanity. Strangely, or not, couples seem to find their partners answers the funniest. Milly – beautiful laugh. Learning the meaning of words such as queefing. Then, the adults all do a skin prick test to assess their own blood glucose. Why? To see if it hurts? To marvel at how, despite the excesses of ice-cream and alcohol, homeostasis remains. Blessed is a working pancreas.

 

We cook from Yottam and Graham makes tortillas with Masa flour. The smell of maize flour makes everyone think of various South American journeys. But I have never been to South America. To me it will always remind me of home, of Rottnest, of men in board shorts and no shirts standing at the bench top working the tortilla press with a red cocktail to the side, whilst women cut onions and make salsa and small boys play cricket on the sand.

 

Maths. The maize flour will send Monte into a massive low. It is decided he can have pasta and left over Bolognese instead.

 

Other holiday-makers join the balcony. They have brought their own Hendricks to make gin and tonics. They add slivers of finely sliced cucumber to thick-bottomed glass tumblers brought from home. Jasper’s T-shirt with the silhouette of a wolf stirs the man to tell his wolf-bite story. He was bitten on the ankle by a young wolf he was walking on a chain at a wolf sanctuary in England intent on conservation and reintroduction. When asked what was the purpose of the walks he says that the wolves required the exercise. The trainers spoke to the wolves in Inuit.

 

The The plays. Echo and the Bunny men. Nick Cave. Beck.

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Boat grounded. Man stands and inspects it, hands on hips. Rocks it. Doesn’t budge. Rocks some more. Another man, his boat still afloat a few metres away enters the beach. Not a sideways glance. Hops on his boat and motors away. Never a word between them. From the balcony we think, Not very Rotto. Friends join the man with the grounded boat. More people will it from the grip of the sand with hands firm on hips. The bottom hangs on. In the end the tide does their work for them. Later they secure it further from shore.

 

Hugo has a scratchy eye. Sand for sure. Tightly hanging on to the underside of an eyelid. Bike ride to nurse’s station. Blue light. Flipped eyelid. Like rolling a blind. Unsuccessful flushing. Cotton bud. No corneal ulcer. Instantly better. Nurse’s bread and butter. Earlier in the week the tanned beachy nurse told me of the face-plants of cyclists – the ones who, riddled with fear, don’t lose their grip on the handlebars and meet the bitumen with their face instead of their hands. Then how she’d spent her shift by the side of a woman with a slowly leaking aneurysm, choosing to die at Rottnest, with her family all around her. The nurse was moments from sending for the flying doctor, after more than ten hours of dying, and the woman, maybe knowing she would be flown away from her beloved place, passed away. Later the family gave the nurse champagne.

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Walking back from the pub the iPhone cameras come out. A beautiful place in which to chose to die. Light pools, sand, gum leaves. Shacks and verandahs with dart boards. Black bitumen roads shining silver. The black blobs of quokkas waiting to unseat cyclists who travel too fast.

 

The morning is still. We get out early. Our tribe of beach goers. Small boys, big boys, men, women, diabetes bag, flies. Turkish towels. Graham and I take the beach wheelchair and the regular chair too. The others cycle. We get there first and inspect the scene. Far below lies a crescent-shaped beach. Turquoise water. It is a narrow sandy path between thick scrubby bushes. It is a single file path made by feet. I transfer to the hippocampe and leave the titanium one by the bikes and we push it through the path, taking out the sides of bushes, till we get to the rocky path. Now there is no set path, just goat trails. It is a two-person job to get the chair down to the beach. Discussion over piggy backs gives way to just carrying the chair with me in it. Holus bolus. Like I am a queen unable to touch the dirt. Cleopatra-like (wish). Handed down the cliff and limestone till the beach is made. Over salt bush we hurtle. No thought as to the journey back. We swim. The water is icy. A red starfish is found. Small boys get to feel it, comment on how they find its sliminess disgusting, before it is returned to its crevice. Boys snorkel. Small boys practice skimming rocks. Home time.

 

The uphill journey gets to the rocky ledge before another man, a stranger, appears and offers his muscles to the task. Three men now – and the job is easier. I suspect it has made his day – to help someone. To feel the value in his working muscles, lift another person. Just as his appearance was a gift to us – as the scaling seemed bigger and harder than the descent – his helping has given him a story for later in the day. He will tell how on a steep rocky path he came across three people, one in a wheelchair, scaling the path from Armstrong Bay. He gave his arm to the chore and the woman was returned to the safety of the road, to the familiarity of bitumen and manmade surface.