Imagine you are ten years old and deciding what to do with your life. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker. You have an unimaginable future ahead of you. You cannot perceive of an illness or accident that would prevent you from doing anything. You haven’t been on this planet a long time and yet you feel you know a helluva lot. You know you like pastry. You know it’s not wise to live off it. You know you like the rain. You know you aren’t quite brave enough to do anything crazy on your skateboard. Your parents tell you loads of stuff in the wizened way of old folks. Follow your dreams. But your dreams are of running. Someone chasing. Selecting for your future has somehow become the thing to think about, all of the time. How is it that they can suck the excitement out of anything with their calculated predictions, their carefully put forward analysis? They don’t want you to make the same mistakes as them.


You wonder if you are some kind of mistake they made.


Sometimes you feel like a piece of play dough. The parents are big-fisted toddlers who are pawing at you. They make you this way. Then they make you another. A thumb to the side of the face. They don’t like what they see. They roll you into a ball and try all over again. You are getting sandy and dried out. But despite their attempts at sculpture, you are already made. Back in your plastic tub you are bursting forth with your own decisions, little arms bud from the body, thin athletic legs spring out.


The lid pops off and the little play dough boy is off and running. Think; the Ginger Bread Man.


They can’t stop where you go now or what you do. You might get flattened. You might dry out. Run, run as fast as you can. You can’t stop me I’m the Ginger Bread Man.


I used to buy him a Ginger Bread Man every Friday from Annie’s bread stall in the market. In a white paper bag I delivered it to school at pick up time. Smartie eyes. He ate his head off first. I called the woman Annie every week for years. I felt as if I knew her. Then one day I heard her called Janice by another customer. I was mortified. How had I been calling her Annie all these years and she had never corrected me? I asked her. Is your name really Janice? Yes, she said. But to you, I am Annie. I like being Annie. Despite this I started to call her Janice. Every time I said it, we smiled. When the shop finally closed she came out behind her counter and we hugged like old friends; a moment between floury, bountiful baker and loyal customer. I had tears in my eyes. No more weekly Ginger Breads for my boy.


On the radio I hear an interview with the man who is the designer of the Academy Award Envelope. As a child he imagined being the man to design the folded paper encasing the name of and the Oscar goes to. What kind of child dreams that dream?


A visit to a high school makes the play dough boy look small and squeaky. Large boys with hairy legs and deep voices, men really, lope around the courtyards. What has happened to teenagers? So large. The girls, too. Shorty shorts with giraffe-long legs. Hairless, naturally. Lipstick disguised as lip-gloss. Can the ten year old see himself here? Will he get lost between the science room and the art department? Something about my own high school experience bubbles near the surface. It’s scary not knowing people. It’s scary being small. What if no one likes you? What if when you speak, you say something that other people laugh at?


But there are many differences between this high school and mine. We were nearly all white. Girls. Here there are Sikhs with turbans, African, Asians, Indians, Indigenous and us. It is the United Nations. A small blonde white kid popping his way out of his plastic tub. Stretching his legs, rolling over his bowling arm, finding a friend to talk to over lunch. Now I have a place to imagine him when he is away from home at high school. Sitting on a limestone wall around a chess court in the quadrangle engulfed in difference, all made to feel equal.

Ginger Bread Man


The Fire

This story was first published in 2003, in issue 95 of Island Magazine. It is a decade since a fire burnt our house. At the time my sister was dumping my dad. A baby was learning to sleep. It seemed the fire and the family implosion happened simultaneously. Ten years on the baby is a tween. He sleeps restfully. My sister recovered her relationship with both of our parents before they passed away. The family healed. The house was repaired. The fire is still a powerful image and the story (I hope) is worth revisiting….

My baby boy gets his hair from me. It sticks up straight off his head. The hair is soft and blond; the colour of spinifex, or a wheat field before harvest.

He isn’t used to sleeping alone. He isn’t used to being in a room where we’re not. Up until this point we have taken him with us everywhere, it seems. While he sleeps in the kitchen we speak in hushed voices and leave the washing up. We bring him, still sleeping, into the lounge. We don’t watch war movies or ones with car chases and gun shots. We mute the television during the ads.

To get him to sleep on his own has been painful. I have felt it in my chest and my head. I have felt more conflicted over this than anything, ever. Before I had a baby I thought it was possible to never let a baby cry. Before I had a baby I thought I knew much more than I know now. Teaching to sleep; what a crazy idea.

If you are teaching to sleep the books recommend consistency, confidence, calmness. All these things abandoned me when he was crying like someone was ripping his arms off.

But time helped and we and he got better. Eventually, but more than the three days predicted by all, he was sleeping longer and I was feeding only once in the night after midnight. Then we had the fire.

We had been to a party and Jasper had been baby sat for the first time by my friend Sandy. It was three in the morning and we were all asleep when someone lit the curtains of his bedroom. Have you read this sentence and not believed it? I wanted it to come upon you more slowly, but a fire is a fire. It happens quickly. In an instant. Quicker than a sentence a fire takes hold of the muslin curtain that is soft and light and moving in the breeze by the open window. Does the person stay to watch it burn the fabric, stay to make sure it will really get going, or do they flee, up the park steps to watch from the safety of the oval?

Once the muslin is on fire then does the calico catch next? How high are the flames now? How much light do they throw on the room? If the arsonist still stood outside by the window would he see the cot? Would he see its white-painted wood glistening and the teddy bear slumped on the floor? Is the skin of his face warmed by the blaze?

From across the continent my sister writes my father a letter and tells him she wishes to break off their relationship. Like some kind of annulment. The fact that she is forty and that they have had conflict for most of her life doesn’t mean she wants it to continue. The fact that our father is eighty, an old man, does not make my sister sympathetic. She is sick of all the shit she gets from him. She writes it out in a big long list – the humiliation, the abuse, the anger. She thinks, I find out later, that she can call off the relationship like she could with a lover, a boyfriend or husband and that eventually she’ll feel better about it. Over it. She doesn’t seem to know that you can never really be rid of your parents or their influence on you, even if you never see them or speak to them. They are in your cells.

As I hold Jasper while I wait on the footpath for the fire brigade I think about this. I press my lips into his soft cheek. My nose smells his skin. Fresh and sleepy. He doesn’t know why he is taken out of his bed at three in the morning. He doesn’t, of course, know the time at all. But I think he recognises that things are different. The sky is black, solid. His father, Graham, is moving quickly in shorts and no shirt with a hose. He is energetic, whereas I am numb. Useless. I hold the baby. It is all I am required to do, thankfully. I am the mother. I do not have to try to put out the fire. I am holding the baby. Keeping him safe.

My mother and father want me to read Lisa’s letter, as if i will be able to sort it out. They are perplexed like old people. They are old people. They could never have expected their daughter to call it off. My mother whimpers on the phone and I am reminded of a puppy pawing at a pet shop window. But what can I do? When we were teenagers I did the counselling. Our rooms were separated by wardrobes, one facing one way and the other in reverse, so between them was a gap of a few inches. Our heads were close by as we lay in our beds. Till late into the might we discussed the problems we had with our parents. We plotted our route to independence. We rode away on our bikes to the cemetery near our house and played in the bushland. I tell them I do not want to be in the middle telling her they said this and she said that. I tell them it is between Dad and Lisa. Mum should keep out of it too. My sister thought my mother might not even see the letter. How little she knows them. Of course my mother opened the letter addressed to Dad as she walked down the red cement path from the letterbox. She’s read it before she even got to the front door. I have decided to stop trying to have a relationship with you, it opens…

The hose doesn’t reach. Graham has to get another from the backyard and join it to the one at the front. It all takes time. I see his fingers as if they are magnified working hurriedly with the connectors. Like the way I watched his hand grapple for the key we keep hidden in the architrave of the bedroom door before we burst out the front and down the garden path. He stands in the garden bed and points the hose into the window. Water arches out like an ornamental spray. Immediately he sees the pointlessness of this attempt. I watch and feel aware that the scene is vaguely amusing. It is also beautiful. The bright orange flames leap out of the window. They flick into the night. Their brightness makes everything around them darker. The night becomes thinker, blacker. There is sound too. It is the warm sound of crackling, burning, a campside fire. A sound I have never before thought of as sinister, or scary. Then there are loud cracks as glass inside shatters. The pictures are being blasted. Their paper is burning, turning coffee brown. Think treasure maps made in primary school. The light fittings are breaking apart, exploding with heat. Black smoke is billowing out of the window. It is really burning now, I think.


I remember being on the farm as a girl. We’d knock down blackboy stumps with our feet and break up bits to light a small fire so as to boil the billy for a cup of tea. They worked well. My sister and I grinned at the burning vegetation. We had no thought for the blackboy. We saw no justification in exempting it from our need or pleasure. Just like we called it black boy, without a thought.

We can hear the fire sirens. The trucks swing into our street and I see their flashing lights. The diesel engine is loud, thudding, as it makes its way towards us. I raise my arms in the air. Over here. We are over here. My outstretched arms beckon. Graham stands beside me. He rests a hand on my shoulder, like we are an outback couple standing beside an airstrip watching a small plane land.

My father wants my help. I suggest he see a counsellor who might be able to assist him in reaching out to my sister, in bringing her back. He is eager to do this and I guess I am a little surprised. I imagine him at the therapist’s trying to summarise his dilemma. He would be tongue-tied, more foreign than usual, more Dutch. I see his socks neatly pulled to under his knees, held there by elastic, his hands nervously clasping each other. He wears too much aftershave, pulls his shorts too high on his waist. He asks me if I think it could be genetic, after all it’s in his family – his brother broke from his mother and he hasn’t seen him either for forty years. Maybe he thinks that if it’s in her genes it excuses him. I tell him I don’t think so.

The therapist has suggested he start with letter writing. He is to write once a month, enclosing old photographs.

When my sister receives the first of these letters she tells me she sees the attempt at reconciliation as trying to make her feel guilty. She thinks the old photos reek of emotional blackmail. She says that she does not question that we had good times growing up. What is he trying to prove sending her these old photographs?

The firemen are enormous. Yellow suits, hard hats, heavy boots. They come towards us shouting. Anyone inside? Where’s the fire? Show Us! Graham leads them to the window and points, although it is obvious now. They can see it too. They unravel the large water hose and blast a thick jet into the room. The fire is out. Firemen, twelve of them, are everywhere. They walk with their arms held out from their bodies as if their heavy suits stop them from bending. They run too, but in slow motion, like spacemen on the moon.They come up to me and ask us if we are okay. Any coughing? Is the baby’s breathing normal? They tell Graham he did an amazing job, treat him as a hero. We will get the chaplain to speak to you, one of the yellow men says. I think this is unnecessary. Aren’t chaplains for the dead?

I ask when we can go back in. I imagine we will be able to sleep in the front room. I imagine something like a small campfire at the window of the burnt room. I have no idea. The fireman bends down towards me; we’ll get the chaplain out, he says again. Best you stay with your neighbours for now.

In our neighbour’s house we have a makeshift bed on the floor of the lounge room. Liz has listened to Jasper’s chest with her stethoscope. Michael has made tea. We are waiting for the chaplain. I still hold Jasper close. Now I can smell his hair. It is impregnated with the smell of burnt rubber. It overtakes the smell of cleanliness, of breast milk. I smell the sleeve of my own top. It is there too. In the days following the fire the smell follows me everywhere. A tip from the chaplain: wash clothes in a loosely loaded washing machine, with a capful of eucalyptus oil.

The chaplain arrived near four in the morning. He didn’t look like someone who had got out of their bed in the middle of the night. His hair was combed; deep furrows lined his forehead like a freshly ploughed field. He was in uniform. He didn’t mention God, or prayers. He was practical, informative, well rehearsed. He gave the impression he knew what he has talking about. The aftermath of fire was his business. We, on the other hand, knew nothing.

I didn’t think my family was as fucked up as it is. My sister needed to do what she did. In a way I’m glad for her. Glad she had the courage to say what she had wanted to say for years. But also, for my own sake, wish she could just go with the flow. Just switch off to our father’s insensitive comments, his silly teasing. Or perhaps she should have had it out in a huge expansive row. Maybe she could have thrown things; smashed plates, cursed and then after all the mayhem they could have cried and made up. Sadly, only in the movies is it quite that easy.  


I didn’t get to see inside the house till the following day. I crunched over glass down the hallway to the room where the arson squad squatted on their haunches by the burnt window. I said Oh My God more times than I could count. Nothing else could come out of my mouth. I was aware of repeating myself but unable to stop the inane phrase. The detective had to grab my attention. We need to ask you some questions, he said. Together we went back through the night about what I had seen and where different items in the room were. What had the curtain be made of? What had been on the bed?

The once white room was now black. The closer to the ceiling the blacker it got. Sticky soot hung on the walls and large strands of cobwebs covered in smoke hung from the ceiling. The wooden floors were littered with cracked glass and burnt material. One picture had fallen from its hanger but it’s frame was still intact. The burnt paper of the picture made a piece of abstract art. It was beautiful somehow. A streak of melted latex mattress ran from the bedroom down the hall and out the front door from where it had been dragged outside by firemen. A toxic smell filled the air. A childhood memory surfaces; melting the plastic casing of a Bic pen by holding it against the coil of the radiator.

Even the rooms not burnt were black. The hallway was black. In the study a fine film of soot covered the computers, the shelves of books, everything. I picked a book of the desk and my hands were instantly black. I began to feel overwhelmed by the dirt, by the blackness, by the thought of the damage, the loss, the need to clean stuff. So much stuff. So much dirty, black stuff. I guessed now that this was what the chaplain had been talking about. This was what he warned people of. Because before people saw the damage they didn’t know the first thing about a little fire.

The arson squad, their blue overalls amazingly clean and bright, talked about the language of fire. They poked around in the room for hours, scribbling on clipboards. They could tell exactly where the fire had started. It hadn’t been electrical or the baby monitor or anything innocent. It had been someone outside lighting the curtains of the room. They were certain. If they were to see a fire in a hundred petrol drums they could pin point the one that had ignited first. They had ways of telling.

The decline in the relationship between my sister and father has none of the characteristics of a fire. No one can track where it started. What was the spark that set the whole thing aflame? The science of relationships is less precise. If only there was an equivalent to Detective Tilley in the psychology department, who could get hold of my father and sister and, with pen in hand and clipboard on knee, nut it out. Yes, it is dirty work, he said. You had no choice but to get down and dirty. He said it like it was one of his favourite lines.

Graham is on the phone to the shock jock who has tracked us down at the hotel. Some lunatic set fire to Graham Miller’s eight month old baby’s room…Can you tell us what happened Graham? Graham has agreed to go on the radio and the television news to help get the smoke detector message across. It saved our baby’s life, he reiterates, even when they try to get him to say something irrational, angry, vengeful towards the arsonist. Instead Graham says that he thinks the person has a problem and needs to be helped.

We are staying at the Mosman Beach Apartments while they fix up our house. Mosman Park is a strange suburb. There is a mixture of the extremely rich and the down and out. Closer to the river are mansions and expensive girls’ schools, while nearing the highway there are old weatherboard cottages, renovator’s dreams and high-rises. A large salmon brick block of flats with a reputation for housing junkies overlooks our apartments.

It could be a month before we are home again. A company which specialises in fire and flood damage removes everything from the three front rooms and the hallway. They will clean it all and return it. This is the thing about insurance.

In the small two bedroom flat there is a sense of relief at not having all our stuff. We have only a couple of bags of gear with us – clothes that were on the washing line and unaffected by the fire. Like the times when I have been travelling or camping, I again realise the burden of belongings. Not having any of it frees my time. All there is to do is play with Jasper.

It is summer and hot. The apartment is on the ground floor, so is insulated by two levels above. Still I have the overhead fans on. Their dusty blades move the air and keep us cool. There is carpet for Jasper to crawl on. He can sit unaided. I attach his high chair to the breakfast bench and feed him canned fruit blended with rice cereal. The resident golden labrador stands at the screen door and wags his tail. His name is Ronnie and he is training to be a guide dog someday. Every afternoon his trainer comes and puts on his harness. He becomes sedate and she takes him out. When they return she talks to Barry, the landlord, about him, like he is a child having piano lessons. She updates Barry on Ronnie’s progress. Graham had nicknamed him Ronnie Irani after the touring English cricketer.

I spend a lot of time on the brown fake leather couch. I watch endless amounts of tennis. Hewitt. Agassi. The Williams sisters. The cricket is less interesting. Australia thrashes England. Lehmann is suspended for a racist comment on the pitch. There are bush fires in Canberra. For once I feel I can relate. Before I thought people on the news talking about their damaged homes were being melodramatic – so overly attached to their belongings. Four hundred homes are destroyed and some people are found dead. A lot of people have no insurance. The news reports how people had to be ordered from their homes and how a man saved himself by running water over himself from a hose as he huddled in the corner and watched as his house burned down. Tears well up in my eyes. I see there is no smoke detector is the flat.

I think Lisa’s decision to have nothing to do with my father is selfish. I talk to Sandy about it. She is, after all, a psychologist. She is often able to say something that makes the incomprehensible understood. Perhaps she is close to Detective Tilley in this way. She says people become selfish in a response to having to look after themselves. Perhaps, as a child, my sister couldn’t trust them to care for her in the way she needed. Selfishness was a response to a lack of love. If she didn’t look after herself who would?

Graham is ironing a work shirt. I move back and knock my arm into the point of the iron and burn the skin. In response to my “ouch” Graham tells me to move away. He is curt. I burst into tears. He goes to work.

Later I see a dead mouse on the floor. Half of its body is under the fridge. I see its back legs splayed out. I can’t bring myself to scoop it up with the pan and broom. I skirt around it and out the flywire door to get the landlord. He is talking to another guest and I say excuse me, can I show you something. I take him to my apartment and point out the mouse. He admits to being frightened of them too, but manages to get it into the dustpan while I avert my eyes.

Jasper wakes in the middle of the night. I go in to him briefly and settle him, then leave the room. I have been taught this by Ngala. As I leave his cry becomes louder, more insistent, more angry. Do not respond to the angry cry., the child health nurse has told me. I resist the temptation to go in. I stand outside and listen. It kills me. I watch the clock. Every ten minutes I go in any way and tell him it is okay. But it is not okay. He is beside himself now. He is so angry. I am no longer confident and calm. I retreat to the bedroom where of course Graham is awake. No one could sleep through this crying. I imagine the entire block of flats is awake. Perhaps the neighbourhood. Will someone ring the police? Will they think I am sticking him with burning cigarette butts? The crying goes on. And on. It gets louder and then softer and then louder again, but it never stops for long. A few times I think he is going, fading off to sleep, but then he starts up. Graham and I lie in the dark. We hold one another’s hand. We plead with the air for him to sleep. We see that it has been over an hour. It’s not working. Perhaps he has a rash. Have you checked him for a rash? asks Graham, as if it is something a mother should know to do. I think you should turn on the light and check his skin? Suddenly that seems possible. Perhaps it is meningococcal disease. I switch on the light. It is fluorescent and insanely bright. He screams louder than is humanly possible. No rash detected. In the end I take him to bed.

Once my father felt the way I feel about Jasper about my sister. He would have felt the same pull, the same yearning for her. I know it. How could he not? Where has it gone? The sadness of this loss is bigger than most things for me at this time. I cannot imagine what it might be to not have my child with me anymore. Perhaps it is wrong, or at least not the best thing for him, to try to teach him to sleep by himself. How can it be good for him to learn that his mother does not answer his cries? That instead, in a room lit with a strange slanting, fractured light, she stands behind the door and fearfully watches the clock.

In the morning when I wake, and he is asleep beside me, it is hard to recall the distress of the night before. In the early hours the light-switch in the bathroom had seemed penetratingly loud, some creaking outside, annoyingly close. Now there is the workmen’s radio from the housing units next door, the bells of the railway crossing and the hum of the electric train. Ronnie Irani is running by the pool fence and destroying the garden. Barry is about in his Speedos and no shirt.

We inspect our house daily and watch the slow progress of the cleanup. Gradually the stink begins to fade. Everything is repainted. The workers litter the front garden with cigarette stubs and wash out their brushes on the plants. Cleaners prise soot from the floorboards. Our clothes are returned smelling of almonds. People whose houses have never been burnt say it’ll be as good as new. We buy more smoke detectors than we need and place one in every room. We no longer leave the windows open and curtains will never again flap in the breeze. Eventually books go back on the shelves. I turn them over in my hands and smell them. The slightest whiff of smoke remains. We inspect security mesh but decide on plantation shutters. For awhile I go back to breastfeeding Jasper in the night. I listen for footsteps on the path outside. I write cards to the fire brigade, the chaplain and the arson detectives, that can’t help but seem inadequate in thanking them. We have credit at a linen shop in the city and I can buy the mohair blanket I have always wished for. Later when I lie reading on the bed with the rug drawn up around me, I think how it will always be a reminder for me of our time away from our house, of the fire, of the rift between my father and sister, of Jasper’s babyhood and his sleepless nights. I instil in the inanimate object more emotion than I should. What if it was ever to be lost to fire or moths? I press it to my face, feel its wonderful warmth, smell its animal tang, its earthiness and delight in it.





In the Wood Pile


The neighbour has had some wood delivered and Charlie is helping stack the pile.

The day is crisp. The sky, cobalt blue. (Let’s be honest here, it isn’t cobalt blue, since that is darker, more intense than the colour of the sky right now – but there isn’t a great word like cobalt to describe the colour of the sky today… perhaps cornflower blue?) The air is still enough that the tin roof can be heard creaking. The four-year-old runs off at the mouth. A constant stream of questions and observations, intermingled with a bit of out of tune singing. His father knows he is around without looking because of the sound of him. Silence spells trouble or disappearance.

Thwack thwack thwack goes the stacking of the wood pile….

I remember the wood pile. Skinks darting through the dark crevices of the superbly stacked pile. Jarrah wood; so dark and red and rich. Part of me feels bad to burn it, like it is wasteful. But then somehow the heat of a fire, the turning outward of palms, the endless staring into the white-hot centre, the flicker of the orange flame, the sharing of warmth, feels respectful and communing.

I remember my father backing the trailer all the way down the long drive. My mother is standing to the side of the Holden directing. We duck out of sight, as my father can no longer muffle his swearing as the trailer refuses to travel straight and once again jack-knifes and threatens the corrugated asbestos fence. My mother threatens too, “I’ll go in side if you do your block!” Wood analogies fly. Wooden-headed man – my father.

In a worn-at-the-elbow jumper the father is standing on the trailer, atop the wood, and is chucking it off. Some lands straight in the barrow. Notice, he wears gardening gloves. He does it quickly. He has no reverence for the sacrificial wood. A block nearly hits the dog as it bounces off the growing pile. Then he wheelbarrows it to a place behind the garage, near the chook shed. It must be out of the rain. Standing on the trailer on top of the wood looks fun. I remember the shaggy ends of the saw-milled blocks. Like the tattered ends of a fringed beach towel. But not soft. I remember the pungent earth aroma of the wood. Some blocks have moist centres like the trees have been recently felled. Its life blood has not fully drained away. It smells of rain and forest still. But playing in the higglety piggelty wood pile, before it was stacked, was sure to end in a splinter. Parents should have known this. But no one said Do Not Play. Parents ought to have known the dilemma to follow a splinter deep in soft pudgy hands. But parents, new to being parents, have not plucked a splinter from a little person’s hand, and they know not the tantrum to follow. They have forgotten, momentarily, how much it hurts to have someone else attempt to remove a splinter. You will sear it forever into their minds with your hollers.

“Let me see. I can get it out. Just stand still. Give me your foot, your hand.” Maybe a child will let the parent have a go, the very first time it happens, not knowing yet the torment a parent on the hunt for a splinter can cause. But not after. After the digging about and the No-I-can’t-get-it-I’ll-let-your-father-have-a-try-exasperation, the wooden-handed child learns; No. Don’t poke it. A big, clumsy-fisted man can really make a mess of it.

“I have to get it out,” answers the parent. “It will fester,” is a well-rehearsed reason to have another dig around. But no amount of festering, whatever that is, will be as bad as what the parent is inflicting now and so the response to a splinter is a flat-out, “No.” Tears now and hiding in the dark corner of the chook shed at the sight of the mother striding inside to get the needle, since the tweezers won’t suffice. I will live with that piece of wood embedded in my palm for the rest of my life, rather than have you come near me with the sharp end of a sewing needle which you have sterilised over a flame.

And so after a splinter or two you no longer play in the wood pile. Not without your shoes on. Not without your father’s over-sized gloves, making your fingers useless. You don’t put your hand just anywhere and climb. You look first and deeply, rightly assess the possibility of a splinter. That pile of yellow builders’ sand – that looks the business.

Later as a young adult, in a rental house away from home, a fire is our only heating. Dogs too. A warm dog on the couch or even in the bed. A little blow heater under the desk for study when the fire has gone out. As the sun sets, the wooden house loses its warmth quickly. Draughts are many. We get a trailer load; half jarrah, half mallee root. The guy dumps it on the verge. That won’t do; that’s where a Volkswagen needs to be parked. I carry the wood in armfuls to the verandah, where it will be protected from the weather. I wear pink washing up gloves. Chips of wood find their way through my jumper and into my hair. Later, as a lie back in the bath, I find red saw-dust as fine as paprika in the shell of my ear. I learn to split the wood, just as my father had done. After all I have his old axe. The handle is worn and smooth. It is the colour of animal hide. How many times has it swung over his head and come down on the wood? It knows what to do. He cared for the axe. Oiled its sharp blade. When I should be devising cattle rations, I am outside splitting blocks. Feet firm on the ground, legs slightly apart, letting the right hand slide down the handle of the axe to meet the left as it comes down on the end of the block. The great swinging arc of the axe and the solid crack of the wood as it splits along its seam. When it is going to split it makes that sound. Pissed off at the mounting study I should be doing, I pick up the axe from its place by the front door, and take to the diminishing wood pile. There is satisfaction in chopping wood for the cool nights ahead.

But a splinter-free childhood is not my suggestion. Still play in the fire wood pile. Still chop wood if you can. Still stare into the centre of a roaring fire. Do nothing but stare. Build make-believe houses and cities and castles and walls from kindling and cut offs. Just don’t let your mother or father near you with a sharp darning needle to gently ease a splinter out. Best advice – get many splinters and be good at getting them out. Get good at gritting your teeth. Pretend it doesn’t hurt. You are the best person to prize out your own splinter.

An Old Diary…Part 2

One of the sisters has flown home across the continent. They can’t be much further apart and still on the same land mass. Still. The sisters are sisters. She stayed for the garage sale. Perhaps they made enough to cover the price of the skip. But it wasn’t about the money. It was just to get rid of the stuff. Lots remains. Funny how fussy the charities are. They don’t want chipped crockery. Bacteria live there. The sofa can’t have lost its spring. Someone might sue them if, by sitting on it, they injure themselves. Virtually no one will come out and look at the bed. Even after assurances that there are no stains. Not a one. Someone suggests a charity that helps the refugees. But they decline. Paraquad, a charity for wheelchair users, says they will come out. A time is arranged.

The sister, the one in a wheelchair herself, is waiting. She is there on time. She has made sure of it. She is watering the garden to prepare the house for sale. The lawn is crunchy brown in parts. But maybe it can be revived. Green. Buyers like green. It is a long time since she lay on grass. Tyres on turf is not the same thing. Always above and distant. Not really connected. As a child she lay on the lawn. Her midriff showing and the grass spiking her belly. Her fingers delved the dirt and she found the small black beetles that scurried amongst the blades. She called them tickle beetles, because held in the closed fist they squirmed across the skin and tickled the palm. Eventually she let them go. On the grass of the back yard she learnt to do a forward roll. Her head down on the grass, palms pricked by the spikes of buffalo blades, tree bark crunching down the back of your top.

The scheduled time comes and goes. She rings them. They came, apparently, before the allotted time and finding the house empty drove away.

“But I am here now and waiting,” she says. “I have been waiting for you in a house I can no longer bear the sight of. I have been scrubbing skirting boards and vacuuming and I am over it now and I just want you to collect the bed so I can finish the cleaning and go.”

“Well the bed is supposed to be out of the house, you know.”

“No I did not know that,” she answers. “No one told me that. I can’t get it out of the house. I am in a wheelchair!”

“Well the workers can’t enter a house,” she sounds aghast. “Someone should have told you that. Occupational health and safety,” she parrots.

It appears they can only collect the bed, if they deem it collectable at all, from the verge.

The sister is livid. She puts the mobile phone down on her lap and lets the small voice of the woman speak to the air. The woman is asking if she is still there and perhaps they can arrange another time but the sister refuses to hang up the phone or put it to her ear. Like a fly at a sore a small buzz comes from the phone. The woman, she hopes, is exasperated. Suffer, she thinks, suffer.

Suddenly overwhelmed by all that she still has to do and the fact that she has wasted her time and still the bed is sitting in the front room, she is crying in the front garden of the old house. She is screaming obscenities at no one – just the grass and the wilting rose bushes. But a lawnmower man from the neighbouring house is a witness to the woman’s meltdown and is brave enough to cross into the yard and ask if he can help her. She is snotty and bleary-eyed and very unattractive. She probably looks like a crazy.

“It’s okay,” she manages to say, “it’s just someone has let me down, and I am very angry about it.”


June 15th 1964; Alex to Esperance. Left his pipe in car ash tray. Cripple attacked by dog over the road and feathers pulled out galore.

I picture my mother discovering the injured chicken, already a charity case. Cripple. Too slow to escape like the other hens into the safety of the chicken coop. Red on white. A stressed bird. Open beaked. The grass scattered with the bloodied feathers. Does she chase the mongrel dog up the driveway?

June 30th 1964; 10 st 5lbs put on 7lbs – disgraceful

That’s me – the cause of the swelling. The one turning her ashamed of her weight gain.

July 6th 1964; Fay sick. Slight loss liquor. Stay in bed for 2-3 days. Dr Anderson. I sponged her.

Then for the following days she visits the neighbour, three houses down and across the road, a woman she nursed with … Sponged Fay.Sponged Fay. Fay Depressed. Lisa very grizzly. Fay to Devonleigh. ? Miscarriage.

Years later this is the woman who house we go to while our parents go to the movies. She lets us watch her cook, a cigarette always in her hand. She has a piano in the front room and we play on it. She has a teenage son who chases us around the house. We hide under the queen bed in the parents’ room. We watch his feet from beneath the bed. We are in the dark, lying on carpet, breathing hard. He says, “I wonder where those little girls could be?” We are squirming with excitement and fear. I can’t recall him catching us. Richie. We sleep over, top to tail, two to a bed. The sleepout has louvred windows and brown chenille bedspreads. Breakfast is different from home.

July 13th 1964; No word re Fay yet and then two days later Fay lost babe. 8.30pm. Boy. Lived 1/4 hour.

August 1st 1964; Alex bought new Rotary lawn mower. Cut lawn. Cut hedge. Fence made for Lisa side drive.

August 14th 1964; Mama Pulmonary Oedema Fremantle Hospital.

I am about to be born and my mother is losing her mother.

August 18th 1964; Mama clot! very ill. Her writing is clogged with fear. She writes that she visits everyday and she shows slight improvement but that the old woman is very irritable. After another two weeks in Fremantle Hospital her mother’s sister Jean is left to arrange convalescence home.

September 7th 1964; caesarean Nicole born 12.45pm

September 19th 1964; Returned home. Feel jolly weak but will soon recover. 8st 12lbs. And then the diary goes blank. Not another entry all year.

I know her mother doesn’t die till I am about 18 months old. She lingers on with her heart failing in the nursing home. My mother must visit her on the bus with two small children in tow. Fay remains my mother’s friend to this day. She survived a melanoma and a heavy smoking habit. For the remainder of 1964 my mother is too busy to even make her notes. She has a toddler and a baby and a dying mother…

An Old Diary…Part 1

Two women in their forties are in the house of their childhood. Once they shared a bedroom. They made a cubby between the Jacarandas with jarrah pickets and hessian wheat sacks. They are sorting for a garage sale. Already so much has been dumped in a skip and thrown on the verge. They are hoping gold bars may be unearthed. Instead they find dried apricots, turned black. Neither of them wears much makeup. Both need glasses to read. One chews her nails. One has the start of grey streaking her brown hair. They both have wrinkles, but they have congratulated each other on their flawless necks.

They find old school reports. They find christmas decorations, made in kindergarten, when children were still permitted to use toilet rolls for craft activity. Of course the house feels shrunken, or else they feel giant-sized. So much of it is unchanged. The smell of their parents bedroom…


I hear my sister walking up the hallway, taking the steps in an easy stride. She is wearing corduroys. We are both practical, sensible people. Or so we like to think. Neither of us is too sentimental. We don’t wear high heels. We are going to sell the house. The one thing we hope is that they keep the tree. A hundred foot tall Lemon Scented Gum in the backyard. She is enormous and gracious. Her trunk is grey and smooth with muscular branches stretching out from her sides. She can been seen from streets away. She is scary during storms when she hurls her canopy like a mad woman shaking out her long locks. Both my father and mother loved the tree. After all it was living.

I am in the front of the house. We sisters can call to one another. Oh God look at this! My mother has kept her wedding dress. The once white lace is yellowing. We find hand embroidered baby dresses wrapped in tissue paper. Who would have thought our mother had the patience and skill for smocking? On high shelves, where they could no longer reach or see, we bring down all sorts of decaying and rotten matter. Moths have gone to work. The remnants just paper away. We come across the diaries of my mother. She is still living. It is wrong to read someone’s diary, right? Not until they are dead. But my mother is not a detailer of emotions. It is not a journal. It is more a list of what happened when. She would not have written down something she wanted hidden. She is also the type who stops herself thinking, to make it not so. I think she believes that pain and death can be erased by the not speaking of them; a child only seeing a smidgen between the fence of fingers that hide a face.

She read aloud from her diary at night, to my father – trying to get him to remember their holidays; in an attempt to will away his dementia. On finding the box of diaries neither of us hesitate to open them. We don’t ask her, perhaps believing we know she won’t mind. Or else feeling some kind of ownership over them. We think they are about us, after all. We are interested most in the oldest diaries. The ones from when she was more our age. When perhaps we shared the same fears and anxieties. What did she think as a mother with toddlers? We look for a version of ourselves in her. Will we end up the same? What’s in store? Perhaps an understanding of the past will make her more knowable to us…

My sister takes ownership of the one from the year of her birth and I have the one from mine, 1964. So much of it is blank. I have to make up my own imaginings of her daily life. She tells so little in it. She plants ranunculi. Her mother is ill. That much I can tell.

January 13, 1964: 28 days since last period. 2nd babe on the way. How do I tell if she was happy? I know she miscarried many times. Perhaps she doesn’t expect the baby to stick. Why write that you are excited when it could be swept away from you all too soon? Growing up we heard the stories of her driving herself to the hospital, blood running down her inside thighs, a boy baby delivered, formed enough to have a sex, but never given a name.

Then about my sister, who is about 15 months old, she writes; January 31st 1964: Lisa’s eye teeth at last through. Will be 14 teeth. Trying to stand.

Then on February 25th she writes again about her pregnancy with me – told Mama and Aunt. Again I will never know what they thought. Maybe they thought it was too soon. Maybe they feared the pregnancy would slip away.

On March 5th 1964 she writes; Leila killed accident-road. Alice F died. Nothing more. I think about my own accident. In a diary somewhere has a sister written; Nicole car accident – paralysed. A mother written; Nicole accident-road – might die. What tears are hidden beneath the blue fountain pen scrawl? Who was Leila?

March is a bad month. On the 12th and 13th there are entries; Alex heard bad news re job. Gone to see Spencer re job. Alex lost job. Terrible blow – but may get one with Dept Agriculture. Alex v.brave. Terrible blow – it means more because it says so little. Dad struck like the pin belted by a bowling ball. Topple. Fall.

On Easter Sunday March 29th Lisa walked by herself.

9th April 1964 she writes; To Safety Bay, one week’s holiday. Yummee! Lovely cottage all mod cons and we are v happy. Is yummee a code to herself? A word she reads and knows the true meaning of.

On Friday 24th of April they saw Lawrence of Arabia. Wonderful! Peter O’Toole really memorable. And then on Anzac day Baby’s movements, felt quickening. Lisa walking well. But she must have been concerned about my sister’s walking since the next day she visits her doctor at the nurse’s suggestion and she writes; Dr thinks she is alright but she would have to be xrayed for surety. He will see her later.

The following day there is lunch with her mother; Mama lunch. She seemed tired and hectic, to say the least. To say the most, did she argue with her mother?

April 29th 1964; Lisa walking a lot more and going down steps by herself. Looks like rain.

May 5th 1964; 9st 6lbs, 2lbs gain. Dr Pixley, all clear, no wait at all. Fundus correct position. Lisa walking v.well. Seedlings planted. Sweet peas by garage. So in a time before ultrasound a simple measurement of the uterine fundus height suggests the baby was in a normal position. A mother is relieved enough to spend time on her knees in the garden.

May 7th 1964; Alex has job Agriculture Dept. Starts 25th May South Perth. It is a relief. Salary 1011 pounds per annum. He stayed in this job till he retired. His superannuation still funds my mother’s nursing home fees.

June 10th 1964; Dr Linton Lisa eye appoint. Lisa’s eye good. Hooray!

I imagine my mother, pregnant with me, worrying about her toddler who has a funny eye and is slow to walk. Her husband has been out of work and he is earning money doing odd jobs for neighbours, like cement edging for Mrs Elliott. She writes when they receive a hundred pounds from a Dutch relative, Aunty Zus. She visits her mother and her Aunt and plants annuals in the garden. She takes the toddler to the doctor and waits for me to arrive…..

1964 To be continued….

The Third Gender

On a crowded bar room floor, with a twenty-something band playing and the music thumping through my rib cage, I feel I don’t belong. It makes me think of the word Belong. Unbelong and Unbelonging appear to be the kind of words that spell check gives a red slash. No results found. But this is the way I feel. Part of the Unbelonging.

I am making my own word for it.

And it is not because of age difference. There are plenty of us middle-aged ones here. The Fremantle Ukulele Collective has just performed and it is full of forty-something blokes, paunches and haphazard, bad shirts.

But it is movement that makes me Unbelong. Other mothers of ten-year old boys are still able to get on the dance floor and move. It is an effortless sway of the hips that they are doing. And they are moving in time. Like back up singers to a cool black dude, and I am watching them. Ravenously. I want their movement. I want their legs.

I am in the midst of hips, and waists, and belts. If she had fluff in her belly button I could flick it out with my tongue, it is so close. I can see up people’s nostrils. I am in my wheelchair. It is slick and titanium and small, and as elegant as a chair can be. But it is still very tipable. Another no-such-word. But it is a word I need. A man, slightly pissed, wants to sit on the edge of the wheel for support or just because he wants to say Hi. After all he likes me. He attempts to sit like someone sitting on a ledge of a window. But I tell him it’s not safe. It is a wheel – designed to spin. Now I am feeling sat upon. I am beginning to feel the crowd encroach on me. Drunkenness is all around and the precariousness of people on skinny heels is, to me, getting more dangerous. I have the feeling that someone will end up on my lap, or worse still, I will be tipped over, legs awry over my head like they are the lifeless limbs of a simple, cotton stuffed doll.

I am sickened by the jealousy I feel watching the movers. Some are moving who would be better served by stillness. But. I see the band in their smoke haze. The blonde boy lead singer has his hair pushed forward like he is walking with a heavy breeze behind him. It could be a Bieber influence. But he is, of course, cooler than that. His shirt has a small dainty print on it. He turns his back on the crowd to concentrate on his guitar. To commune with it. The boys have tight pants. The type that need to be put on lying down and writhing on the bed. This is how I too put my trousers on. The boy on the electric violin has a curly mop top and a velvet jacket. People have their phones in the air taking photos and short videos. Then the phone is pocketed and more swaying. More circling hips. Stirring. I look down at the stilettos in front of me. At they way they move on their centimetre of contact with the boards. Twisting into the surface. Screwing and stamping their humanness deep into the wood.

Along with movement these dancers have desirability. They run their fingers through their hair. They do head flicks, their lips do pouty things. They rub their thighs with their own hands. Unattached to metal, they are all flesh. Watching still, I feel their sex. Sitting, amidst and stagnant, is not sexy. I am a blob of flesh on my island of titanium. A photographer with a camera, as opposed to a phone, is taking pictures of the band. Through all the smoke. The light is red and orange. The keyboard player has milky perfect skin. She could be fourteen. She has so much movement ahead of her. Or does she?

I don’t attempt to use the toilet here. I doubt there is one for the disabled. In more desperate days I might choose to use the toilet and pee, unashamedly, with the door open, unable to close it and still get back into my chair. These days I opt for the third gender toilet.

In the belly of the Unbelonging, longing resides. It seats itself heavy and morose. Here in the very cool bar, the longing is a dull throb. As if in time with the beat of the music there is an aching remembering of ancient movement. Of swaying hips. Of  snaking spine. At other times, mostly it is weak. Weaken by time, years in fact, routine, just plain getting used to it. The longing is gone when we are across the road at the fancy restaurant where people are merely torsos and heads. Here we are all equal. Legs are beneath the table. Crotches are unseen. Ease returns.

I am in the toilet at the fancy restaurant. It is designated for the people who crouch on the c. The symbolic wheel. We of the wheel. The Third Gender. We are not sexless. We have desire. To be free of the thing, with its titanium brilliance, that we both love and hate.

Dessert is finished, the wine is empty and we are going back into the den of the bar. We enter through a heavy door, held open with the working foot of the person in front. The stamped wrist is shown. I am reminded of the sullen, awkward and violent boyfriend of the past. He had a thing about door stamps. He wouldn’t let his inner wrist, where the blue veins coursed beneath the skin, be stamped. Not after his chemistry-clever brother told him about polymers. He said the ink was toxic and likely to seep through into the blood stream and cause cancer. He would tell all the door people, at all the pubs and bars, this complicated story. With him, nothing was ever simple. Mostly they let him have his stamp on a corner of his untucked shirt. But he could make a scene too. And then things might turn nasty. He liked to threaten them with legal action. Talk about rights. He gave people fighting for legitimate causes a bad name.

He too was a member of the Unbelong. For him, it was a desire to stand out. He enjoyed the difference. Revelled in it even. He was the type to shout out at the cinema during a show when everyone else was silent. He used his charisma to make the vulnerable love him; intoxicated them even. Then once, fully addicted, punished them for their devotion. A slow grinding away of any self-esteem.

I am through the other side now. Home again. Not feeling like the third gender. Not feeling so static and two-dimensional. There is music outside on the oval of Fremantle park. There, the tough members of the Unbelonging, will make it across the spongy grass to the elevated ACROD platform and do their best to move to the beat of the music. I ask myself; can I put myself through the Longing again?


The Shoe

This was how it was pronounced – the shoe. “He’s in the shoe.” What they were really saying was SHU – which stood for Special Handling Unit. It was the part of the prison where the real baddies were and it had an ominous feel about it. You should feel nervous about entering here. The SHU officers had straighter backs, tighter shirts, highly polished boots and elaborate and colourful tattoos down their arms. They had body art. Let’s be clear – inmates had tattoos – the black blue bleeding lines. LOVE. HATE. That kind of thing. These guys had shading and three-dimensional imagery on their biceps. Smiling at them you felt like they might say back, “It’s no joke.” “There’s nothing funny about the SHU.” There were no female officers in this part of the prison. When we visited it, Warwick and I went together or else Warwick went on his own. I often didn’t go at all, after the first few visits. It really scared me.

We were escorted by an officer through some heavy locked gates and down a race and then into a further locked area where there were a couple of administrative rooms before we entered the prisoner area.  Like going deep into the Russian doll. Layer after layer. If we had anything with us we had to put it in a locker. One room held the Santa suits – the orange outfits that labelled them as men of the SHU, as well as the riot gear that might be required one day. Before we could enter one side of the SHU where the ten or so prisoners were, the officers inside were told to put a certain prisoner away on the other side. He was not allowed any female contact. Not even to lay his eyes on one. He had once been in a medium security prison and armed with a knife had captured a female arts worker and held her prisoner, doused her in aerosol and repeatedly raped her over six hours. He had, in the years before the attack, gained people’s trust enough to become a cleaner in the Education Area, despite having twice assaulted female prison workers whilst in captivity. Caring people had been duped. From his position as cleaner he had tricked them into believing he had left the area, but had stayed behind to ambush the woman. She had been lucky to survive. Now he was never to be released and no one took any chances with him. His actions had deeply scarred the whole prison community. It pleased me to know he could not even see me. Once he was in his cell on the other side, we could enter.

But it was weird to know he was there. Adrenaline. “He’s away. Safe to enter.” Even behind the locks and the bars on the far side of the Unit I felt my heart speed up. This man was sitting in his cell. This monster. I had never really felt this way before about someone. Labelled them. It didn’t feel normal to feel this frightened of someone else. It turned them into something less than human. An essence of the fear he engendered hung everywhere. Monster. But having heard the story of his assault on the woman it seemed the only term for him. It seemed sensible too to be very afraid.

Men in the SHU didn’t usually put their names down on the flyer to see the prison visitor, but we went there anyway just to have it said out loud that we were there and able to hear anything they might want to say. Warwick seemed to think it important to make sure we had not forgotten them. The officer would announce us a little half -heartedly and stand in the back ground. “The prison visitors are here. Anyone want to speak to them.” If not in lock down the prisoners were free to roam the Unit. If they were in sight of us they might shrug and then turn away. Like they had boredom to get back to. Perhaps a “Morning Miss.” We would wander the corridor and poke our noses into their open cells and say Hi but mostly we were ignored. Mostly we chatted to the officers. Admired the body art. I positioned myself so no one could get behind me, just in case. Someone was teaching the drug cartel guy English and in return he taught them Spanish. Someone else was working out on the gym equipment. Someone else was doing the clean up in the kitchen. From the central area we were being watched by two unseen officers in the control room. It was that glass that you can’t see through. Each guy in the SHU had his own cell. There was no sharing in here.

One guy was in here for punishment. He was in lock down. Back in the Units when he had been doubled-up he had lost his temper and torn his cell-mate apart. The superintendent told me he had never seen a man so damaged by some one with no weapon other than his bare hands. The attacked man had had to have metal plates put in his face to repair it. This guy wanted to talk to me and was brought from his cell. We sat in a glass room with an officer outside watching us through the glass. The prisoner was in orange with shackles around his ankles and his wrists. Bare feet. The suits have no pockets. Nothing on their person can be hidden. The officer pulled the chair back for him so he could sit opposite me. He leaned forward to tell me his concern. I wrote down his complaint. I can’t recall our conversation now, but when he asked me what I did on the outside and I told him I was veterinarian he lifted his chin and said “and I’m a tiger.”

Another guy in the SHU was a serial self-harmer. He was in there for his own protection and perhaps because not many people could abide his strangeness. In the SHU he could be closely monitored and a kind officer was working hard to help him stop his self-mutilation. He had a habit of pushing razor blades up inside his urethra.

From within the SHU there was no view of anything outside it. Grey bars, grey walls, concrete. It was extremely claustrophobic and airless. The stainless steel kitchen was spanking. There was one exception; the small concrete exercise yard. If you looked up. Then you saw a patch of sky. Blue and pure and far, far away. Not a big dome of it like normal Western Australian sky. Just a smidgen. The exercise yard was bit like an old-fashioned Elephant pit. The concrete walls, spotty and black in places with fungi, reached to the sky, unscaleable. There were no windows out of the SHU. It was, and no doubt still is, very secure.

Not Just Any Wooden Chopping Board – A Prison Tale

Some years ago I got a wooden chopping board from Casuarina prison. I purchased it from the wood-working section when I was a volunteer for the Independent Prison visitor scheme run by the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services.

As a prison visitor I would observe and speak to any prisoner who had scrawled their name on the pale green flyer pinned to their unit wall. It was our job to document their concerns and take it to the Superintendent. He was a man close to retirement. He had worked all his life with prisoners and you got the sense he really cared for them. He lunched at the prison on Christmas day, he told me. When not discussing the prison he wanted to ask me veterinary questions. He loved to talk of the heifers he raised on his hobby farm. If he was unavailable we would meet with the Deputy. Taller, grey-faced, smelling of cigarettes, with the nose of a heavy drinker. Afterwards, we would write a report for the Department of Corrections as they were required to respond to the prisoners concerns. We were a kind of weak-willed watch-dog, but we were also able to get some minor problems solved, as they arose, if the prisoners were unable to do it themselves. We could get them an appointment with the dentist or find them someone to explain their sentencing. The Super would just pick up his phone. They, of course, often had bigger concerns that we had no control over. Like “I am Innocent.” One man liked to detail his entire defence and how he was unjustly accused and convicted for the murder of his wife. He didn’t even believe she was dead. No body had been found. He couldn’t possibly have done it. His version was, to me, very believable, and he was reasonable company; often making scones for our scheduled visit. If his name was on the list, I would see him. Others, similarly, just wanted someone to talk to and would make up a reason to see the Visitor. One day I asked the Super if he thought the man had killed his wife. Of course, he said. No doubt about it.

The prison visits were conducted in pairs and I usually went with Warwick. He had done the job for a lot longer than me. And he went to more prisons. He was a retired Christian Brother and a good man. He wore a tweed jacket. He believed people, but was not naive. He let them talk, but also knew how to end a conversation that wasn’t going anywhere. Warwick would see some of the more difficult men or those deemed unsuitable for me to see. Or simply the ones that gave me the creeps. Like the guy who started commenting on my appearance. Your hair’s nice today, Nicky. It was in relation to him that I first heard the term Groomer.

We would typically have twenty or so names to see and we would divide them equally and head off in various directions to find our guys. They might be in their units, in education or working. We would be escorted by an officer, if we requested it, but after a while we just went on our own, knowing the lay of the land. Walking across the grounds of Casuarina, even with the sun out and the drone of lawn mowers, made me a little nervous. After all it was not just any garden and the men working on the flowerbeds not just regular gardeners. They were inmates. Granted, to be on the Gardening team meant you had to be of the Good Kind, after all you had the roam of the place and you had tools. You got to drive a little buggy and cart bins. But still. The price of an active imagination was walking across the grounds, whilst scanning for potential threats, locating officers whereabouts, imagining how I could use the flimsy exercise book as a defensive weapon.

Those not working would be in their units. Each unit was cordoned off from the general grounds by fencing and an electronic gate operated from within the unit. Men would loiter at the fence and watch you walk by. Morning Miss. Bouncing basketballs, doing chin ups. Putting muscles on muscles. What ya doing Miss? Any laughter was at me, I was sure. You needed to greet them and smile. It felt required. One time, an officer said to me, “You know they’re thinking of what they would do to you if they could.” That unnerved me. My heart was racing. It made me scared of the officer too. The way he said it. The way he wore his belt so tight. The way he thought I might be a stupid do-gooder for coming there in the first place and deserving of what I got. Who was thinking what in here? Always in the back of your mind, it felt dangerous. And I was a little on edge. Maybe that was a good thing.

Some officers made you feel that way – a Them and Us. But others had a different approach. Mentoring and helping.

Where men were working it felt more settled. People had things to do. The officers had a role to teach more than guard and it made for a better atmosphere. More like high school. My favourite was the Bakery. Men in white, aprons to their knees, and flour smudged and softened everything. Yeast and baking bread overrode the prison smell. My least favourite – veggie prep. Piles of potatoes for peeling. An overripe stench. Wet floors and gum boots. Hair nets. A man worked here who all the others despised. He had AIDS and they feared him. He picked the festering scabs on his face and they said he bled over stuff. It’s Unhygienic. The others wanted him removed. But it was a privilege to have employment. And he’d earned it. After all you have more freedom that way. You got out of your unit and walked in a group with a couple of officers the length of the grounds to the work areas. Tell him to quit picking, suggested the Superintendent.

So one day in wood work I bought a wooden board. I checked with the Super. It was okay, as long as I made sure I paid for it. An invoice was created and a cheque made out. No cash in prison.

When I use the board I think of Casuarina. The prison in the scrub, an oasis in sand, its perimeter razor wired and impenetrable. Driving away, past the Vietnamese market gardens selling strawberries by the roadside, past the new suburbs with their darkly tiled roofs, I began to breathe. I drove to the ocean and sat looking out. The ocean went on and on. So free, I felt. So grateful, and liberated, and free. I burst into tears. I didn’t know where the tears came from. I guess it was simply a release from the stress and fear. In the prison I had encountered madness. A young man was so clearly deranged that even I, with no training in mental health, could see he needed to be in hospital, rather than in prison. He believed the superintendent had implanted a monitoring device in his brain and was watching everything. Everyone knew of this young man. The prisoner was always on the list. We couldn’t help him. We nodded and tried to get away as quickly as possible. We wrote notes about getting the device removed. He was one of the forgotten. Young and pale, in his dark green prison attire, breakfast stains down the front of him. A face tortured with illness. Nails bitten away. His name sent eyebrows to the heavens and made officers groan, “What does he want now?”


What’s your first memory?

I am lying on a sink in thin pure cotton pyjamas. The shorts have elasticised bands around the thighs. I don’t know they are called bloomers. All I know is that I love the pattern and the feel of the cloth. Maybe I am a toddler or at kindergarten. The sink is hard and not very comfortable. There is a single small basin with a wooden surround, by the kitchen window, facing south. It is the window where my mother signals to my father to come inside by simply banging on the glass. Later when we are older, as he becomes more distracted, or less interested in the goings on within the house, we are sent to get him from deep in the yard.

The sink is high and far from the floor. I have been lifted onto it and told to lie down with my head over the sink. My head is like a too heavy flower on a not strong enough stem. Head back. Head back, says mother. From a cup she pours tepid water over my head. It falls in a gentle stream. A hand shields my face from the flow. She is shampooing my hair. Her fingers back and forth on my skull. Kneading. The lather is white and soft. It dribbles down my temples and pools in crevices of my ears. Water is flowing back down into the sink.

I don’t like it. I don’t hate it, either. I don’t remember crying or protesting. I like the warm water and the firm touch on my head. I don’t like the trickle of liquid into my ears or the soap finding the corners of my eyes. I don’t like the hard sink at my back. I like being lifted down and placed on the floor. I like a towel piled high and wobbly on my head.

The sink is the same sink in the same kitchen that I must clean as my mother prepares to leave the house she has lived in since the 1960s. She is entering a nursing home to be reunited with her husband, my father, who is already there, having been accepted straight from the hospital after his fall. The sink would not do these days. It is not deep or wide enough for the mountains of dishes that a household goes through.  It is a simple single shallow sink. Not a double with one for rinsing. No large draining boards. Its cupboards beneath are made from chipboard and have swollen and buckled from water damage over the years. There is still old lino covering the shelves that my father laid back in the seventies. On the windowsill sits a battered steelo my father would use on the pots and pans.

The sink looks not long enough to hold a child’s prone frame. But it did.

I look out a hibiscus bush; watch a bee find its way inside the trumpet of the flower. Then, back out on the petal, it staggers around.

Washing my hair now in the shower, the stinging of the shampoo in my eyes sends the memory flooding back.

I am sitting in the kitchen on a chair so high my feet are swinging above the floor. I am under a home hair dryer. Hot air rushes in under the cap and puffs it out. Hot, hot air all over my head. My mother has put my hair in curlers. It has taken an infinity. Her bending in front. Her pulling and snapping the bands. The clips scraping the skin of my skull. I will be the spitting image of Shirley Temple, my mother tells me. She is a favourite of hers but yet to be seen by me. For we still don’t have a television and it will be a few more years before we sit down on Saturday afternoons to watch her movies. My hair is blonde and pliable and loves to curl. Each ringlet is bouncy and like a spring. Close your mouth and your eyes. Pinch your nose. Like preparing to bob under in the silty Swan. She sprays a mist of hair spray. Now the hair has been glued into position. I am fogged by a strange metallic smell. My mother holds up a hand mirror. Her face is hidden behind it. Under my hand I feel the hair. Stiff, unwavering curls. Mother says, it is Shirley Temple hair.



Cut up RAC card

I find my Dad’s wallet amongst some things I bring home from the nursing home. How he treasured his wallet. How frustrated he would become by not having it, in the end. No matter that he didn’t need it. I had his cards, his pension number, his medicare number. But he liked to have it with him. A reminder of being a grown up. And when he was still at home how angry he would become when he failed to locate it once again. Inside I find the card for the Hearing Aid agency with the small ripped piece of paper stuck to its rear with his PIN number on it. I knew it was here and would have to remind him of its whereabouts when he queued at the bank. Once I was told off by a cashier for knowing such private information as he rifled through the wallet not remembering where the damned thing was.

I find the RAC card with its member since 1958 stamped on it. I cut up the cards in case. In case of what? I cut between the gaps in the surname, through the account numbers. In case. I find his last Slikpik  lotto dated 17/4/2010, the last time he independently went to the newsagent and had the presence of mind to buy one. It cost him $7.20. I will get it checked just in case. I find his appointment card for the blood collection agency.

1976. Holden Kingswood. Brown. The car won’t start. My dad is cursing. The bonnet is up. Something about spark plugs and carburettors. The RAC man is called. Down the driveway, blue King Gees. He’s a real ocker. He makes fun of my father I sense. Something about his accent or his high waisted trousers. Or maybe just because my Dad’s impatient and doesn’t know how to hide it. But how acutely you feel it when you’re a teenager. Like you have a radar for how others judge your family. If only he didn’t have to do his belt up so tight.

The wallet can be discarded. It is vinyl. It has no scent. No wonderful feel. I am throwing things away.