Red Hen


Jasper is cleaning out his bedroom. He is decluttering. He is exhuming the detritus of a ten-year old because soon he will be eleven and eleven-year olds have moved on from Little Golden Books, and Dr Seuss.

Anything you don’t want just put in a pile because I will go through it, is my plea.

Because to me books are treasures. They are more than words on paper. Of course. A story, a sentence. It worms inside, to the heart of you. There are books that he loved, and then there are books that I loved, and hence read endlessly to a toddler who cared little about what was being told as long as he could turn the pages.

There is something special about a loved book – one you’ve read out loud to a child so many times that its words have worn a track through your brain. Like a single lane walking path through a wooded forest. Grass woven flat, as hard as concrete. Pine needles beneath your feet. Your mouth shapes the words before your eyes have read them. The pictures are so familiar. Like old photographs etched in your memory. The smell of a winter stew cooking as the sun goes down. The rumbling sound of a Kombi pulling into the drive. The tilt and flow of language.

Will you help me plant this grain of wheat?

Not I! said the duck…

Then I will plant it myself, said the Little Red Hen. And she did.

The industriousness of the Little Red Hen was always remarked upon. All that planting, reaping, carrying, turning flour into dough and baking was done without any help from the duck, the cat, the goose or the pig.

The selfishness of the “Not I’s” saw that they ended up with no bread. How right things were in the world of the Golden Book.

So I keep the Golden Book. First published 1954. I keep it for myself. Maybe one day I will read it to another small child. Maybe one day Jasper will unearth it in my old possessions and find himself on the forest path.

Cleaning out my parents house I find similar kept treasures from my childhood. Dolls’ clothes. Hand made babies’ dresses. Christmas decorations made in kindergarten from toilet rolls and cotton wool balls. My mother kept a book I had loved as a child. It was tucked away in camphor and would not have been looked at for years. Probably it had been forgotten about it many years previously. But there would have been a time when she held it over the garbage bag for Good Sammies and hesitated before dropping it in. She would have looked through it and remembered my delight in it. It would have brought a smile to her face. She had kept it as I am keeping the Little Red Hen now. It was so familiar when I found it, like I had looked at it only the day before, but it had not been seen or thought of for forty years. I turned the pages and found the favourite picture I had puzzled over. It was the story of a princess, but the pictures were not drawings, but photographs of dolls dressed in real fabric and with doll house sets. In one picture they sat at a table eating a royal meal and the food in the pictures must have been life-sized, since on a plate is a single pea that seems the size of an apple for the princess. This wrongness appealed to me. Everything else miniature and perfect, but the food. And I would wonder at the people who made the book. Did they run out of ideas? How did they imagine the princess would eat such a pea? What would an apple-sized pea taste like? How would I make the princess a meal?

With Jasper’s mountains of work and drawing there is always the question of what to throw away and what to keep. How many pages of scribbling can you really want? For a whole term at Montessori Jasper would bring home cardboard boxes glued together into towers and present them as if they were sculptures. We kept none. I squirrelled away a favourite blanket, a pair of booties, his wrist band from the hospital where he was delivered. I have not kept teeth or hair. And yet the book feels more powerful than some of these other treasured things because I can hear its magical song. Reading it aloud is a meditation back to mothering a toddler. When reading aloud at the end of the day signalled the respite that would soon be yours when he was in bed. There is a sighing to the reading of the story. It is short. It is complete. The tale needs no explanation. The little Red Hen; she had no help, she did it herself.

golden books

Hockey Dogs

sponge cake 2

Hockey training takes place on an oval in Fremantle. It is a multi-use oval with cricket nets and clubrooms shared by both the cricket and the hockey fraternities. For the cricket families it would be a refuge from the heat. Somewhere to get a cool drink and away from the sun. For the hockey mums it offers warmth and dryness.

The building is made from dark brown brick from the seventies or eighties. A building made when we watched Countdown and listened to ABBA. The textured masonry makes you think of a thick slice of chocolate sponge cake. It makes you long for a hot cup of tea. Inside old wooden honor boards with names in gold lettering line the walls. An asterisk beside a name signals the person is deceased. There are the ubiquitous stacks of stackable plastic chairs. Many families have spent hours huddled in here while young ones take to the turf. Already I can imagine being inside when it is cold out and the Juniors are playing, regardless of the weather.

Parents drive up with kids who exit high cars like horse-riders leaping off steeds – gripping mesh bags with their armour (shin pads and mouth guards) – hockey sticks like lances brandished by jousting knights. (Do you sense already I have sat here too long?)

Most parents leave. They have stuff to do. So do I. I could grocery shop. At least I could get toilet paper. I could clean my house. Instead I stay to watch. The children must run down the steep embankment to the field. It’s the kind of steepness you can’t walk down. It makes you run, like you are falling over yourself. The field is marked up with hula-hoops and cones for dribbling and pushing a hockey ball around. I watch from the upper bank by the car park and the charity bins, by the side of the chocolate sponge cake wall. An old swing set waits to be swung on.

Other cars pull up and dogs pile out. They are as exuberant as any child. Some dogs come to the park with owners on foot from nearby houses. It’s that time of night – dog walking time. Some owners bring plastic tennis ball throwers while others bring a tug rope. Some bring just their pooch (and a pocketful of yellow poop bags).

In one afternoon – a puppy dachshund, a Siberian husky, a newfie, two bostons, a bunch of poodles, a border collie, a blue stuffy, two whippets, a pit bull.

The dog walkers take to the perimeter. These are dogs used to the hockey. They don’t go for the ball. They’re not spooked by hoards of teenage girls, ponytails bobbing, running up and down the banks for fitness. The dogs have eyes for one another and perhaps their own ball. Politely, they sidle up and do the nose to tail greeting. They prance off. They ask another dog for a game of chase. A play bow is offered. Invitations are made. There is zooming and frolicking of the most infectious kind. Smile-inducing dog play. In a corner of the park a man flies a kite and the poodles are off and over; launching themselves into the air, barking, necks arched backwards and noses pointed up, wondering what that strange bird in the sky is doing so damned high.

As the sun begins to dip the swallows are out flying low across the grass hoping for an insect. They make for good chasing. They are, of course, uncatchable. It has never stopped a dog. If you have the energy to run, then run. If your legs hold out, keep running. Never give up, no matter that thing you are aiming to catch is a bird. Ceaseless trying – is a dog’s great attribute.


hockey dog 2


A Tree

Lemon scented Gum

Thinking of a tree.

It is the tree of my childhood.

It is an Australian tree. It was always big, but the smaller you are, the bigger it seems. It looks like it touches the sky, when you think the sky is a blue dome in which you live. Before you know the world is round. Before you believe such a farcical idea – that sometimes we are up and sometimes we are down. That if you sail to the horizon you will not fall off.

But back to the tree.

It has a silver-grey suit that changes depending on the season. It is at its most beautiful in the autumn when it is smooth like seal’s skin. The trunk has ripples and dips in its surface. Almost liquid. Your branches are really arms with biceps and triceps and beneath you we play our childhood game. You are always watching. Slowly stretching your deltoids and pectorals – all twisting and twining. Your canopy is sparse and flimsy really. The leaves are skiffs for gum-nut babies, dangling for sale from the tips of twigs. They swivel and turn in the heat and the breeze. They show their pale sides and their silver green. They are beaten and shoved by the wind. They are whipped and thrown around, like a cheer girl’s pompom at the end of her frenzy.

Tell me what you see from up high, Mrs Tree. Below we play on a yellow painted bench. Our father chooses high gloss enamel to cope with the weather. A sensible man. Two girls stand on the seat with arms held wide. We are in a plane, of course. The aeroplane is going down. Everyone will die. Except us. Jump from the bench to the spongy over-watered grass and roll. Prickly buffalo pokes indents in your eight-year-old skin. Away from the burning wreckage. We run around the bench. The dog runs too. This time arms are mimicking swimming. To the tree. Hug it. It is land. We are saved if you get to the tree. Of course our parents perish. What game can be played where the parents survive? Not a desert island game. We have to revise the description of it to our delicate mother; so sensitive is she to think we play a game daily where she is dead.

We have the same species of tree in our communal driveway. No one owns the tree. The four houses that surround it all love the tree. At the end of the day we find ourselves drawn outside. One neighbour hears the voice of the others. The children hear their friends. Gates are opened and the dog brought out. Scooters on smooth red driveway. We sit beneath our tree on a limestone ledge. When her leaves look brown and sad we bring her the hose from the nearest yard and let her drink. We look up at her dead branch and ask that she not drop it on our cars, or at the very least, not our soft heads. In the storm she lets her hair out and really throws herself around. I am reminded again of my childhood’s Lemon Scented Gum. At night, in moonlight, in a storm she was ferociously alive. Like she wanted to up-root herself and be free of the strangling earth. She shook. But she never put her boots on and left. In the morning the grass would be strewn with leaves and small twigs that she had shaken free. In big armfuls my father would take her cast-offs to the incinerator in the far corner of the yard. Her oil would scent the air.

Sometimes a bigger branch would crash down on a neighbour’s fence. Repairs were needed. There was always talk. Men across the fence to my pullovered father. She’s too big. Dangerous. A lot of work. Not called a widow-maker for nothing. But my father protected her. He loved her. He tended her. Raked the bark from her surrounds. Piled the leaves on a tarpaulin and hauled them down the back. Like pulling a body from the surf. Rescued, but still drowned. Till he knew not the difference between a tree and himself. Wood as flesh. Leaves like hair. Bark like nails.

Today ravens sit in our tree and call. Craw. Craw. You either like the black shiny birds or you don’t. Their chalk-white eyes are to one clever, to another evil. Their heavy feet walk the iron roof above my head. Like portly short-legged men. They have something to bang on about. To one another. Perhaps they speak of the swimming carnival across the road. It is that season. The barracking goes on. The air horn signals the races’ start. Butterflies at the starting blocks, the slap of the water on the dive. A volunteer on the loud-speaker assigning the winning faction its points. The splash of churning arms, the gulping of air. Misty goggles. Tears for the ones who find it all too much.

Our tree is youthful compared to my father’s. She has still height to gain and girth to add. One day it will take several children holding hand to hand to ring her base. She will work on the red bitumen about her and seek more dirt. From beneath her, looking up, she has the shapes and curves of a woman. She has bulges and sinkings. She has a collarbone, a belly button. She has moles and scars, dimples and piercings. She stands brazenly naked, ripe. She will see us lose our marbles, just as my childhood tree watched the man stoop and fall in his garden bed of roses. She heard him call out for help, but she could not bend to pick him from the turned soil. He lay still and looked at her. All she could do was offer her shade.

gum tree skin



Leunig in the Kitchen

Michael Leunig

Leunig asks himself, “What is this?”

It is his way in to everything.

He describes his childhood as one of benign neglect. He grew up in a working class family with four other siblings. He played in paddocks on the suburban fringe. His playground was the rubbish tip. As a child he started a fire and burnt himself severely enough that it took him six months to recover and learn to walk again. He nearly lost some toes. His playthings were a dog and shanghai. He pinged at tin cans. He says it taught him much; trajectory, velocity…I can imagine him. A mop of wavy hair, poking a stick at rubbish, asking himself, “What is this?”

He had a duck, bought as a fluffy yellow duckling. It imprinted on him. It followed him. He likes ducks. He likes their rounded beak. He likes that it is does not peck but rather dabbles. Non-threatening. To him ducks provide the way forward.

He doesn’t look for meaning. He admires the musician, who, in making music is not asked to explain its meaning. They are free from that kind of scrutiny. To the musician mystery is allowed.

He has been able to stay in a childhood state of wonder, asking, as he looks at the world, “What is this?”

People in the audience are hanging on every word. They lean forward on their lecture theatre seats, tipping towards him, craning. The man in the row in front lifts his glasses and wipes his eyes. People are hungry for his simple wisdoms, given like small morsels. We are the ducks and he throws us satisfying crumbs. He tells us “hang on to your childhoods.” All the aged people in the audience murmur in agreement. But their childhoods may already be lost to them. How to get them back? He talks of wonder, dreaming, mindfulness. It is what a child does without thought. He needs no courses on how to do it. No meditation retreats. A rubbish tip, a duck, a pencil and a piece of paper will do.

Leunig sees the pathos in things. This is what attracts him. As a child he saw two men engaged in a fistfight. A drunken brawl. It filled him with shock and sadness. Again he asked, “What is this?”

“Love your enemy,” he tells the audience. War doesn’t end on the battlefield. Deaf in one ear, he could not be conscripted to go to the Vietnam War. He had been prepared to go to gaol as a conscientious objector, but in the end his disability prevented him from having to make a stand. “They took the wind from my sails,” he says.

He failed Year 12 twice, he tells us. The second time he did worse than the first time. Someone asks him why he continued at school if it was so hard for him. Wouldn’t he rather have stayed home? He says he wanted to be with his friends and that he had some worthwhile teachers along the way. He liked being there. It didn’t matter to him that in the end he hadn’t passed the exams.

It is a hot sticky day before the crossing of Cyclone Rusty. I have returned from Kitchen Garden where eggs were marbled in a pot of black goo – star anise, soy, cassia bark, black tea and more. The hard-boiled eggs were cracked and peeled and inside the egg white had turned beige and brown filament veins mapped the ovoid. Like wonderfully cracked porcelain. Like terrazzo. I felt like Leunig might on viewing the beautiful eggs. What is this?

marbled eggs

And how much Leunig would have loved the sago pudding?  The minature white balls are like miniature stuffing for a bean bag. The kids can’t help but let them run through their fingers, over and over again. They are white and hard, but cooked they turn into translucent beads. They are sticky and gooey and have no flavour – not until mulberry syrup and coconut milk are added. The mulberry syrup is a deep dark purple liquid. Viscous. As it gets added to the sago it turns it mauve. It is the colour of the storm cloud, the one that is heading our way. It still isn’t flavoursome, but it is delicate and strange in the mouth and everyone has an opinion. It is a bead. The tapioca is more about texture than taste. It awakens another sense. To the children who made it it is magical. The artist-child holds one between a finger and thumb and says to the little glasslike ball – I call you Nemo.




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


Missing Jasper

from John Muir book
from John Muir book

Jasper is away.

A long way away.

He is across a very big continent. He is in a different time zone. He is not with either of his parents. It feels weird. He rings and his voice is so young. He is inquiring when he speaks to us. He wants to know whether we have seen movies and gone to out to dinner. We have instructions not to see Jack Reacher without him, but it is okay to see foreign films. He wants us to have a good time without him. Like he is worrying about us. The same way we are worrying about him. Mutual vexation. We try to be as descriptive as we can about the very ordinary things we are doing while he is away. There is a niggle knowing child-free time is precious and we should be doing more. We should be going out later than late. What drugs could we still take and fully recover from? But that need is gone, it seems. We should be doing more than seeing the early evening session of The Life Of Pi followed by Indian food. Home in time to catch the end of the tennis.

We have bought a new Kombi (new to us, but still forty years old) and after taking down the inside cupboards a line of rust in the roof is revealed. For a long time water has pooled here and eaten away at the metal. It is a rusty, gaping hole where there should be solid, comforting metal. Instead there is unsupportive air. She was supposed to be rust-free. We are disappointed because we liked the guy. After all he is going to live in Bali and teach Yoga and surfing. We trusted him when he said he had cut all the rust out. Why did we trust him? We chastise ourselves for being gullible. There was no way of seeing the rust. But.

It will cost a lot to fix. More than we imagined. And first we need to find someone capable and willing to do the job without ripping us off.

When Jasper saw the Kombi he fell in love with it immediately. Because it has a pop top. It is a place for him to sleep. It is up high, above his parents and a long way from creepy-crawlies when you are camping. It is the ultimate cubby. We were infected by his enthusiasm. Suddenly I am dreaming of travelling around Australia and home-schooling. I am thinking of abandoning the house, researching the dog-friendly camping sites and high-tailing it.

There is something about a Kombi that turns children into urchins. Suddenly they love the dirt and sticks and simple things. They no longer need ipads or game boys. The possibility of adventure, the thought of no showers, the snuggling under a fleece-lined sleeping bag on top of a still warm engine. What’s not to like…

Jasper as a three year old urchin in our first Kombi

It would solve our high school issues. No need to decide on a school even. School of Kombi.

But it doesn’t stop me pouring over all the web sites for all the schools. I am researching scholarships and GATE testing. I am finding out the difference between academic extension programs and Independent Public schools. I am wondering whether Catholic education is suitable for heathens. I am looking up school boundaries and contemplating renting in Shenton Park just to get into Shenton College. I am trying to recall the name of relatives that have attended elite boys schools. Would their name help? I have a brick on my chest.

I go to the pool and swim. It is something I haven’t done in a long time. It got lost when my parents got ill. It was the first thing to fall by the way side. Even though it is only half an hour, it was a half hour I couldn’t seem to get back. It hid itself from me. Then it had began to take sneaky peeks at me from behind a sofa.Today I found it. Cornered it and held fast. Graham suggested coffee in town, but I stuck with the swim. I had trouble locating my bathers. Would the lycra have bubbled away? Would they still fit? Just. I couldn’t remember how much money I needed to locate in coins for the entrance fee. I know there will be new girls at the counter. Maybe they will want to see my concession. I feel more blind without my glasses than I use to. I will never recognise anyone who chooses to say Hi.

I feel my body, heavy and sluggish, over the first one hundred metres. The rhythm needs to be found. Muscle memory recovers itself. I don’t push it. I just roll the arms over. I am trying to rock my upper body more in an attempt to not hurt my shoulder. It is the kind of thing the over-forty swimmers need to do. I breathe deep and slow. With each lap serenity returns. Ah yes. The water. Giving back. Like the life source it is. A swimmer passes me and leaves a trail of silver bubbles sparkling like sequins flowing from a ball-gown. They are saying follow me into a space. Come with me hither. The ladies are doing their deep-water aquarobics beside my lane. Their bodies are round, festive baubles, reminding me of Christmas and maraschino cherries. They have yellow floats around their waists, making them buoyant. I think of The Life of Pi and the turbulent ocean. Of his swimming to the life raft. Of the tiger. So fierce, so beautiful. The cherries’ legs are working hard, like they are peddling an invisible bike. Above the water their heads model hats and sunglasses and their air is fogged by the cloying scent of their makeup and perfume. Even at eight in the morning. But it is good exercise and who knows when you may need to swim that little bit harder to reach the shore or the life raft. I just mosey along. Given the need to reach the raft I may just go down with the boat. My laps = No rush. Not going anywhere. Up and down and back again. Losing myself in the monotonous stroke and the motion. Not counting the laps, because it is too taxing and means I can’t day dream. Mesmerised by the blueness of the sky.


Rottnest 2012


Every year we go to Rottnest in November. It is our family tradition. We have done it since Jasper was in utero and before he was even thought of. In those days we had an imaginary child called Pee Wee. Somehow she skipped childhood and we never envisioned her at Rottnest. She was a gamine who grew up to be a singer in a jazz band and who lived a groovy loft on Manhattan. In our musings we were aging grey-headed parents who visited her there. But that’s another story. Instead we got a blue-eyed boy, who, like the real boy he is, comes with us on holiday, a forty minute ferry ride from home.

Arriving at Rottnest is like going home. You have stepped out of your Fremantle cottage to shortly enter your more primitive but better abode. This home has no messy desk, no laundry, no bills and, most of the time, no telephone coverage.

So much of every part of the holiday is soaked in familiarity. Do you remember the year I nearly fell off my chair onto the Dugite? What about the time Vinnie cracked his helmet smashing into the wall as he stacked his bike? And when Jasper caught his finger in the flywire door? Each year melds with the former so it can no longer be recalled what year it was and who was there. That time we stayed in the back row, with Troy and Jo and the boys were babies. Remember when we showed the Nordic Anja the flickering of the orbiting satellites. She had never seen a sky so black, so unaffected by city light. There is the routine of arriving at the ferry terminal early enough for someone to unload the plastic containers full of belongings and beach gear and still have time enough to drive home again and return riding their push bike, into the head wind, with the semis roaring by. This year Jasper is old enough to do the bike run too.

There must be enough time to sweet talk the ferry men into the delivery of the-above-allowable-safe-lifting-weight beach wheelchair in its bag. They have not denied me thus far.

Once arrived at the island there is the picking up of the key from the accommodation office. Invariably the unit is not ready, but they have taken to texting you when it is, and so we just go to the bakery to wait. Here donuts are bought. Not because they are especially good. It’s just what we do. Energy for the hill. Is the peacock that frightened Jasper as a baby still alive doing its dance? The seagulls that live around the settlement are the most brazen and will snatch a chip right out of your hand just as you are about to put it in your mouth. But this year I have learnt that seagulls mate for life, and some how knowing this makes me feel kinder towards them. Somehow I notice that they are in pairs when I have never seen this before. Before I thought of them as flying rats. Me; older, softer.

There is the ascent to climb on the way to the Longreach. The kids race off, well ahead on their geared bikes. No one is pushing a pram, or hauling a trolley with little ones. The way is known to the boys. Past the Police station, the nursing post, the oval, the Basin. This year I am walking alone to the chalet. I have a heavy load of extras under the chair and a bag on my lap. But it is not super hot and who is in a hurry anyway. The odd moth-balled quokka is about attracting the odd tourist who squats in front with a camera. To the boys the sight of a quokka is no more interesting than that of a seagull. The new attraction is freedom. Ahead of the parents. Gone.

The oval is dry, the grass cracking, and the sign still says the water used to reticulate the grass is unsuitable for drinking. The potholes in the bitumen remain.

The hill to Longreach is my test. One day I will falter here. One day I will not have the steam to make it up unaided. For now it is doable. Tough if it is hot and the chair is loaded. But still. Flies make a nuisance of themselves when my hands are too busy pushing to shoo them away. At least the glasses keep them from the corners of my eyes. I am slow enough to look up and see the windmill and marvel that its spinning is providing the island with its energy. A large black skink, like an expensive sunglass case, slithers through the scrub. I love the whoosh whoosh of the giant windmill blades as they rotate. They give the wind muscle. Cyclists whizz past going down hill, wind-smiles on their faces. I look at the bitumen as they pass, think about how sweet it might be to stroll up the hill, taking step after step in soft leather sandals, then put my head down and keep pushing.

Then the familiar Longreach Bay comes into view. It has a large section of light blue water where there is no weed. We call it the Big Blue. Yachts are anchored to moorings around the edge of the blue, but it is mid-week and there are only a few. The moorings are familiar too. There are ones that we swim out to as a test. There are ones that we have swum to and then whilst treading water in the deep we have gasped as beneath us the dark shadow of a stingray swims by. There is a descent now to the front row of Longreach chalets. I can get some speed up. I get my own wind-grin. Still the others will have been there a good fifteen minutes already. They will have brought the luggage inside. They will have chosen their beds, checked the fridge is filled with the groceries delivered by the shop and rearranged the kitchen table. Graham will have disconnected the tv and faced it, like a naughty child, into the corner. Single-handedly he will have manoeuvred the couch out onto the verandah and faced it towards the Big Blue. We always strung a hammock, but since a child died when a pillar collapsed, the authority that runs the island has banned this. On this holiday a worker erects a sign on the balcony saying maximum capacity of nine persons. Graham will have set up the sound system and might even be flopped on the couch with his feet up.

When I arrive the boys will have their shoes off. They will be jumping on the bed, climbing the door jambs Spiderman-style and exiting through the windows of the front bedroom. They will have scattered the cork tile floor with their belongings. Already Hot Wheels will be lost in the far reaches under the beds. It will have taken only a moment for them to turn feral. From now on they will sleep in beds full of sand, with black feet and salt-encrusted hair. They will wear the same boardies and t-shirts for days. They will reluctantly put on sun-screen and a hat. They will joyously travel to the shop several times a day for whatever it is the adults need, just in case they can wing an ice-cream or a sweet lolly.

Sometimes there will be a surprise in the chalet like a new coat of paint. This year there is a photograph of a sunset at The Basin adorning the wall.

Otherwise it is like returning to your own home. Few things are different. They have decided to give you more dishwashing liquid, but anyway I bring my own. The scrubber is still crap. Don’t worry I bring that too. The single tea towel is still inadequate. I have several. They have dispensed with the enormous stainless steel pot big enough to boil a whole crayfish. Shame. They still only give you one roll of toilet paper. Tight. Over the years the beds and pillows have improved but we still bring our own foam eggshell and our latex pillows. Because that’s the thing about Rottnest. It is a little bit of home. For the people who go there regularly, it is just an extension of chez-moi. We have friends who take their own elaborate coffee makers and their Thermomix. They make sure everything is just so. Someone might have the ritual of tying a red ribbon to their gate latch for the littlies to know which is their chalet. Someone else might set up a table for cards or scrabble or jigsaw puzzles. Someone might set up a sun shade on the beach and leave it flapping there all week, like they own a bit of Longreach.

You know it so well that you recognise the sound of the closing of the yard gate. It has made a groove in the sound memory of your mind. You know that at night the bathroom door will bang softly, but loudly and consistently enough to keep you awake if you don’t stopper it with folded cardboard. You know the sound of the metal latch on the front door, designed to stop it slamming shut in the afternoon gusts. You know which bay will be most sheltered for the direction the wind is blowing. You know one day one kid will be sunburnt and another will fall off his bike. You know that ice cream will make it better and it will come from the freezer so cold that you can’t scoop it out with a spoon unless you boil the kettle and warm the spoon first. Note to self – next year bring the Zyliss ice cream scoop. When one boy has forgotten a toothbrush and he is sent to the shop to buy one he returns with a toothbrush so old-fashioned that it reminds you of your own childhood. It has a handle of a single colour. It has no grip for your thumb. No knobs to scrape your tongue. It has no fancy bristles of different lengths or fading colours to massage your gums. It reminds you of when the Colgate toothpaste tubes were metal and to squeeze them in the centre got your Dad riled. It reminds you of communal bathrooms in caravan parks where your mother made you wear your thongs in the shower incase you caught something off the concrete. It is the simplest of brushes. He tells you that that is all the shop had in the way of tooth brushes. Nothing fancy.


The River House


It is all about the water.


Seen from the house it captures your attention. Look at the river now. So smooth. Not like water at all. Some other kind of liquid…


At the bottom of the gently sloping lawn it runs. Sometimes it is gravy; silky and glossy. Insects skim across it, like miniature skaters on a polished rink. Sometimes wind kicks its face, turning it pitted and pocked. The breeze rakes it from smooth to furrow. Sometimes it is a deep suede brown like the leather of a farmer’s boots. It changes from moment to moment. Then it is sliced by a pontoon boat, singing its way down stream. A bare-bellied man takes charge with one hand around a stubby holder and the other on the steering. Women with their feet up, sun their freshly waxed legs. This is Yunderup, on the Murray.


From our jetty the boys can fish. They can snag their lines on the submerged bits of trunk and tree, unseen in the brown. The dog can teeter on the edge of the jetty as he strains to see what is being reeled in. His wet black nose a-twitch. A puffer fish. Flapping and fitful on the hook. Prey. The red dog is set to wonder; what miracles of life lie below the brown, waiting to be plucked by the silver line?


Only one fish is big enough to keep. Measured on a man’s forearm. The rest are returned to their preferred murkiness.  After the fishing is done the red dog still paces the jetty wondering how.


Three kids with boney knees. Two males, one filly. The boys are hankering to spend three dollars at the shop on bubblegum and war heads. Past dead verges and broken down yards to get sour sweets. You have to take Veronica.

But we’re going on our skateboards. We’re fast.

I’ll run, she promises.

A single shop half a mile away. Selling booze and dog food, tampons and toilet rolls, white bread and baked beans. After they’ve gone I start on the tea cake. No cinnamon. I google the shop. I ring.


Hi. Have you got cinnamon down there? She goes to look. Between the shake and pour pancakes and the vegemite.

I’ve got cinnamon sugar.

That’ll do. You’ve should have three skinny kids in the shop getting lollies. Tell them they need to buy the cinnamon sugar too.


I imagine their expression. What our money! On cinnamon.


Back through the fly wire they come, three little white paper bags full of their bounty.


You get it?


Jasper, scowling, hands me the cinnamon sugar saying, she told us you needed cumin for your cake. It made the adding up hard because we had sorted out how much we each got to spend and then we had to put stuff back because of your stupid cumin.


It’s not cumin. And it’s not stupid. It’s for tea cake.


Pontoon boats – like floating patios drift past the windows. These sinkable lounge rooms of cream vinyl and boomy stereo clink up and down. Aussie flags too. Then back to the stillness. Jangle. Settle. Jangle. Settle.


On the far side of the river a couple have carried down two deck chairs and placed them on the end of the jetty and sit looking out. Like movie watching in their media room. Their chairs have holders for cans of drink on the armrests. No need to bend down. They sit the same, with their legs crossed at the ankles, breathing in the river. The woman sprays a fog of mosquito repellant around them. A dog intent on the ducks takes to the water and swims up stream after the birds. As he gets nearer they take to the air and flap several feet ahead and then touch-down again in the water, out of dog-reach. The dog keeps on, till, exhausted, he heads for the bank and finds a way to scramble out. He shakes himself off and stands on the edge of the bank watching the ducks putter around.


The river moves about the base of the trees that grow on its banks. It laps at the bark, like a dog licking its sores. The trees drop their leaves and branches into her soup. It is a brown composting sludge. It smells of mud and worms, of algae and fish. It has darkness and depth. Something says it is teeming. It has a slippery bottom, a toe-squelching queeziness, to its earth. It takes away tree limbs and breaks them down to silt, returns them to their roots, to grow to tree once more.


It’s all about the water. It is ink. It is metal. It is silver and it is blue. It is milk and it is mercury. It is a mirror for the sky, reflecting the clouds. It is molten and grey, as the sun tucks away and the clouds take over. It is all about the water. Come look with me.

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.


We live on a dead-end. At the end of the road is a park. Three federation workers cottages, built-in 1905, border the grassy reserve where the council has planted paper barks, and then tried to kill them repeatedly by ring barking their base with rampant whipper snippering. They struggle on. The houses have seen many young lives grow within. The wide jarrah boards of the hallways have been indoor cricket pitches. The verandahs have been taken off and put back on again. There is a limestone wall and beyond that the playing fields. There are drunks and homeless, dog walkers and legitimate park users. Over the years the park has seen a lot too – a murder even and much fornication. But we have the mown lawn in front of our houses mostly to ourselves. It is the playground of our children and our hounds. Murphy snorts amongst the fallen fig tree leaves. In the winter I find the last of the sun and sit in it while Jasper kicks the football to himself. The paper barks are his goal posts. He is Ablett, Ballantyne, Betts. Always kicking the winning goal in the dying seconds of the game.

We are awaiting the arrival of other children back from school. Keep a look out Mum, Jasper suggests to me. They will be meandering slowly down the hill.

For the children of our neighbours have become a tribe. Three boys and three girls, including a baby who knows not what she is in for yet.

We are the neighbours. Four couples. Some are nudging forty, others closer to fifty. We all work but some like it less, and do as little as possible. There seems a lot of time for ukulele, banjo, Mad Men, coffee bean roasting, Breaking Bad, foreign language lessons, Pilates class, cervical disc extrusion surgery, banana bread making, vegetable growing and the deep and discerning discussion of the pros and cons of all of the above. At the end of the weekend we converge in the shared space of the red cement driveway. The last house on Shuffrey is part of our tribe. In its front yard it grows the vegetables. Corn has been replaced by Broad Beans. In the summer the large Lemon Scented gum provides shade. Now we seek out the winter sun and try to stay out of the wind. Men are pulled away from their cleaning car meditation and women emerge from the house. No-knead bread has been left to rise. A thermomix is making the béchamel sauce, without the need for stirring. School clothes are flapping on the lines. The mini has been detailed with stickers since her paint job. She now has her Mayfair title back above her bumper. The late seventies BMW 635 is being prettied for sale. The dogs are let out. Stan and Murph have some rambunctious play-fighting to do. I have returned from work in a strikingly unpolished and dirty Subaru. Sometimes there is tea and cake. More often there is beer and wine. A high chair in the driveway; and the baby can be fed spag bog here too.

Sally is arriving home after the young girls’ ballet class. From the cavernous insides of a Prado peel two giggling soft pink prima ballerinas. They have ballet flats and leotards and each has a sparkle on their cheek for their good pas de deux today. Marshmallow pink tutus. Their different shades of blonde are pulled back into identical pony tails. Boys erupt from around the side of the house. They have shooting equipment. Numerous Nerfs. Jasper is the eldest of the tribe, at ten years old, and the ages flow down from there. It is as if he has five younger siblings. He has a younger brother, three years below, and then the twin sisters and another younger brother and finally the baby, crawling. Jasper is the one making up the games, climbing the walls, jettisoning the missiles, putting the tennis racket on the car port roof. The next boy is not far behind. The girls form a tight bond. They like to draw and create. They like to change outfits and help their mothers. The boys are busy spying on them, hiding from them, escaping from them, teasing them, making them cry. The smallest boy, finger nails painted sky blue, would like to keep up with the bigger boys, but they are often too fast for him and sometimes he is left standing in the driveway, wondering which way they went, holding his well loved Tiger and pondering if perhaps he should play with the girls, who after all, are closer in age and not as quick. It is his dilemma.

For us – the parents of the single, oldest boy, we are gifted a bigger family. Jasper has siblings. Almost. He has someone to kick with, to boss, to look out for, to take care of, to be bossed by, to trade with, to be burdened by. He has someone under the duvet with him on the couch as they all watch Robots into the night. Someone snuggling up, someone pushing a bare foot into his ribs. It helps assuage the guilt over not providing him with siblings of his own. He has the neighbours…and the very best of dogs.