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.
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.
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.
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.