Nearly there…

New Yorker _ behaviour cartoon

The year has a way of picking up speed at the end.


Like a train with failing brakes – headlong down the mountain. Where’s the man with the Mars Bar when you need him?


Today is one of the first warm days. Only a moment ago it was still jumper weather. But then suddenly, forcefully it hits – Summer. In Perth it is usually dry and endless. The sky is Texas big. The blue is cornflower.


People seem glad summer has come. But by the end they will be feeling differently. Already the grass is losing its moisture. Turning cracked and dry. The gum is stressed by its home hemmed in by a concrete driveway. Its roots need to breathe. But instead like a face Glad-wrapped. Tortured.


It withers on.


I have one more module to go for my animal behaviour course and then it is over. Kind of. Because I have enrolled to sit an exam. You idiot!


I will have six months. To Memorise. It is a long time since I memorised anything, but it is my plan. Memorise, like I did when I was a student trying to get into vet. When I thought my world would collapse if I did not get in. Then, I memorised whole passages of literature, loads of French verbs, chemical equations, rules of physics. My brain was fitter then. I had determination. I rose at 4am to study before school when the rest of the house was still asleep. I tiptoed to the kitchen and made myself an instant Nature’s Cuppa and held it between my hands as I read over my notes. Over and over.


I did not have to take an eleven year old to tennis, to swimming, to piano. I did not have a floor to sweep. I did do the dishes. I still do the dishes.


I pray that memorising might be fun. It want to memorise to relieve the stress I might feel going into an exam unprepared. Memory will save me.


In the meantime I will brush my teeth with my non-preferred hand – believing it is forging new pathways in my brain.


The boys are out tonight on a twilight sail. There is no wind. Even better. Lulling around. Adrift. Becalmed. Graham’s preferred sailing. Bobbing really. Beer in hand. Bombies off the side. Jasper with the men. Armed with a hacky sack for entertainment (and brain training). Soothed by the slap of the water against the side. Taking in, as if by osmosis, the gentle way the men have of being together. No need to inquire really about the state of each other’s minds. More just being together, while the sun goes down.



Dealing with Disappointment


I decide to ring the Department of Education because it is mid way through August and we are supposed to hear about Jasper’s application in August. I don’t really expect to be given a result on the phone, and so when the person says, “I can check, what’s his name?” I am unprepared. I feel my heart wobble. It comes free from its attachments inside my chest. Name given – a pause – “It appears he won’t be being offered a place in the first round,” comes the reply.

I close my eyes. My head screams, NO. My heart slides downwards towards my stomach. The disappointment is visceral really. I have my own disappointment, but more than that, I have a son to tell. He has already become very attached to the idea of studying visual arts at the school. He will take it hard.

Graham is away, and so it falls to me to deliver the news. I could wait till Graham got home, in a week, but that seems deceitful – to know for all that time and not let on.

I wait till we are home, after school, in our kitchen. He has a very crunchy ANZAC biscuit in his hand and his back to me when I begin. “I rang the department today to ask about the visual arts and I am sorry to say they said you didn’t get in.” When I start the sentence he turns to look at me, a slight smile, and I can see from his expression he thinks the sentence is a good news one, but as I get through to its second half, it dawns on him that this is not a good news sentence at all and his face changes. It crumples into tears. I go to comfort him. To hug. He pulls away and rushes from the room.

I don’t follow him immediately. I wait in the lounge, by myself, wondering how long do I wait for. What words of comfort can I offer? I know you’re disappointed, I rehearse in my head.  He is not in his room. He is not in the study. He is not in my room – that I can see. He is in my wardrobe – behind the clothes – crouched in a huddle – beneath dresses and jackets and the confetti of shoes. I can see his sneakers and in his hand the ANZAC, untouched. It is a safe hiding place. Go away.

I close the wardrobe door and leave him in the dark. I’m so sorry…

I leave him.

To myself – Maybe don’t eat the ANZAC in there..

I leave him some more.

Still hiding.

He comes out.

He is outside in the courtyard, bouncing a ball, and I am in the kitchen making a cup of tea. I view him through the window, across the sink. Skinny, lanky, always moving. I see a big tear fall from his face without hitting his cheek, like a rain drop falling to the ground. I am crying too and he sees me. He comes inside. Let’s take the dog out. We walk the dog. My solution to all woes. The road by the port is closed and we must walk by the railway. Broken glass. The slap of skateboards. Still beautiful. It is a day like any other to the dog. There is winter grass to pee on. There are urine soaked telegraph poles to sniff at. There are homeless begging in the mall. Jasper asks what has happened to his career? He is eleven. “We’ll just have to show them what a great artist they missed out on teaching,” I say. We eat churros dipped in melted chocolate.



Head cold meets Knitting

Jasper's Knitting


Jasper says, “I wish I could knit on the couch while the TV is on, like you do…”

“I can teach you. What do you want to knit?”

“A beanie.”

A free-off-the-web beanie pattern is downloaded. A spare ball of wool is located from the cardboard box beneath the bed. Ninety stitches are cast on. I show him how to knit a stitch.

It is not easy for boy hands. The task is delicate and dainty and very much a sitting still activity. But he is inspired by it. It is repetitious. You get better at it quickly. The thing you are making is growing before your eyes. Be it slowly. Lucky to have knitting when you are at home with a head cold. When the outside is beautiful and still and clear and crisp. But you have a sore throat and a runny nose and a heaviness to your head. And just inhaling the air is making you cough. No outside for you.

Mistakes are plentiful. Bumps where bumps should not be. Holes where holes are not. But knitting is forgiving. Just keep going. A wonky stitch will not ruin the thing. It is a good lesson for him to learn – the boy who hates smudges on paper, or creases on books. The boy who adjusts his singlet and then takes it off. Who checks the used-by-date on his Mocha milk before purchase. A knitted beanie, I tell him, doesn’t need every stitch to be straight. You will see. A few gaps here and there add character, Fremantleness. It will be better because you made it. Because it grew from you. From your industrious hands.

It struck him, momentarily, that knitting was a thing girls did. He sees no males do it. When we searched online for men and knitting the only knitting males involved themselves in was speed-knitting, their hands moving like machines. Needles like drum sticks. How to ruin knitting – turn it into a competition. But something about knitting overrode the girl-thing.

And then there is the sheer joy of a mind-numbing activity. I don’t think enough people appreciate the peace that comes with doing the same thing over and over. Like the person who doodles flowers or stars. Runners get it. Like the swimmer doing lap after lap. Swimming and knitting and meditation and breathing. All the same.

Dogs know the power of repetition. They know the joy of monotony and predictability. They strive on routine and regularity. It mends the mind. Awash in oodles of serotonin, my dog spends all day on the couch. He needs no surprises. He wants for no deliveries, or new friends. At 2.30 pm he begins to predict the school pick up time. He shuffles and rises when he hears me ready myself to leave the house. It is not all he gets but it is one of the predictable walks he longs for. He stretches and arches and shakes off. He will pee on at least three of the Stobie poles. He will mark the dustbin on the corner. He will drag his butt on the braille-for-the-feet street crossing. Knowing him completely is part of his charm. His presentation of his Kong on greeting. His knitting-like nature. Day after day. If he were ill, it would be immediately obvious.

The activities that quieten my mind always seem to have a repetitious nature to them. Like scrubbing the sink. The squirt of the Jiff. The way it doesn’t lift the grime without some effort. Not like on the commercial. One wipe and it is gone. It does require scrubbing. But that is part of it. If wiping were all you wanted, you would not be at the sink with a scourer.

Typing. Tea drinking. Knitting.

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.


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.





Once upon…a kitchen

Once upon a kitchen….start of the stormy season. The yard is awash with decaying brown leaves. The verges are all tatty. The already very messy Australian landscape is even more dishevelled. Eucalypts with a bad hair day. Wind has wreaked havoc on the saplings that were valiantly growing beside the house. Its top is knocked off in the 120km/hour winds that has gotten hold of its canopy and whisked it.

I am on at the Stephanie Kitchen Garden at school. Cooking can happen despite the weather. Maybe because of it apple pie sounds the perfect choice. The white board tells us we are cooking melanzane parmigiana, bagno cauda, preserving lemons and finishing up with apple pie. The season is right for preserving lemons. They are given away for free outside neighbour’s houses and in fish shops. So much better than the store-bought kind whose waxy skins cannot be grated and whose flesh does not deliver juice. Atop the bench the fresh ingredients spill from the wicker. Fancy eleven years olds that know that strange purple gourd = eggplant = aubergine = melanzane.

I have three lads to corral. A bit like dogs with storm phobia, they are feeling the barometric pressure fall, and are all fidgety. But perhaps they are just eleven year old boys needing to stay on the hop. One has braces, another lanky and thin, and the last with a crew cut, except for the rat’s tail strand of hair that tickles the back of his neck. Wash and dry the lemons. Cut them to their bases in quarters but not all the way through. Fill their centres with salt. Pound the coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle. Rat’s tail wants to taste everything despite it just being salt, or coriander, or lemon juice. I tell him all the salt he is consuming is not good for him. He continues grinding it into the cupped palm of his hand and tasting it with the tip of his tongue, like a horse on a salt lick. Delicious, he says. Braces measures the quarter cup of honey and places it on the bench. He is keen to do everything. He will not miss out on life. Rat’s tail picks up the honey-laden cup, with goo spilling down its sides and then drops it on the floor. Meanwhile Lanky is squeezing the lemon juice we need. Braces is quick to get a cloth. The honey is wiped up. Don’t tread in it, I warn. I notice the largeness and puffiness of their sneakers, their feet already the size of men. Rat’s tail is still busy testing and tasting everything. He wants to know if he can eat the cinnamon quill. The large jar is stuffed full of the lemons and salt, coriander, cinnamon, honey, juice and water and set in a large stock pot to bring to the boil. They must fill the pot and then lift it out of the sink together. Rat’s tail keeps testing the temperature of the water with his finger. He is a real poker and prodder. A finger in the pie of life. The type to open the oven door too early. The type to discover something new because of his curiosity. He could also be the type to jump into a murky pool, not knowing its depth or what lay at the bottom. Lanky is the one to do most of the cleaning up. When the other two have skedaddled, he is still at the sink, scrubber in hand.

Meanwhile the eggplant has been sliced and crumbed and the homemade tomato sauce spooned over it and then the grated cheese is placed on top. It is under the grill. Another group is covering the wedges of apple with cinnamon and sugar to make the filling for the pie. The pastry has been rolled and cut. Another group has dissolved the anchovies in the warm olive oil, previously crushed and pressed at school. They have steamed the cauliflower and potatoes and cut the other vegetables into dipping sticks that will be plunged into the sauce.

We will eat at the long table under cover on the stage of the assembly area. The weather is not allowing us to eat at our usual table in the sun. Kids who have previously thought they don’t like eggplant or anchovies are finding it not as bad as they thought. But Rat’s tail still holds his nose while he consumes his melanzane, just incase. But finishes it, he does. Of course there has never been a kid who does not like apple pie fresh from the oven. Has anyone ever had an allergy to sugar?

At the end of the day, as the storm front approaches, again the wind picks up. Jasper and his mate give out notices to take home to parents, saying the school could be closed tomorrow, if the storm results in building damage or loss of power. There is general excitement and joy at the prospect of this. Literally leaping. On twitter the storm is brewing fear. Someone retweets that the university is evacuating at five. I think I will move my car from its position under the widow maker. In our cottage, over a hundred years old, we feel very protected from the elements. Knowing it has stood so long gives us great confidence in its strength. It has hundreds of years ahead of it, if it is to become like the homes of the Europeans. In Spain we once lived in a 600 year old house on a street barely wide enough to drive a car. The walls were constantly being plastered over so they grew thicker and thicker. Damp made the plaster periodically fall away and crumble, but there was always more whitewash to be found. So in my Fremantle house I feel safe from the storm. My limestone walls move not an inch. I hear the rain on the tin. The dog positions himself bang in front of the gas heater; legs splayed heater-hog style. I hear the wind outside and see it across the oval whipping up the trees. Once upon…a storm.


Old fashioned Ruler and Wafer Biscuit


Because I don’t know what else to do….

Seeing the teacher this afternoon. Guts in a knot. Ate one biscuit. Wanted another. Stopped myself.

Took a photo of it instead.

Yesterday Jasper left his hat in his bag in the corridor at lunch time so could not go out in the sun. He sat undercover and watched the others running amok. No Hat No Play. The classroom is locked at lunch time. A no go zone. Perhaps this is because children might graffiti or vandalise. Perhaps someone might turn the word on the black board from lock to fuck. Even a girl.


No More Montessori

When people who have never sent their kids to a Montessori school tell you Montesorri kids are weird, or how much they love Montessori despite never being part of a school with that system, it makes you want to…

Everyone’s an expert on what a child needs.

A child should know what’s it like in the real world, someone says, expounding the virtues of a competitive environment.

The pros and cons rattle about in my head, that feels empty of all else but the two opposing views; one suggesting kids should follow their own path, blazoning it themselves, and one saying children need their path illuminated for them.

Some mothers get my angst. Especially Montessori mothers. They too wish for the control experiment child. The I-dream-of-Jeannie style child suddenly blinked into two. One raised this way; one the other. See which turns out best. A test tube baby in the purest sense.

But short of this there is just giving the other system a go.

We walk the long hill. It is at the point of impossibility for me in my wheelchair. It is long and steep. A limestone wall, deteriorating, is on our right. Convict built. Already Graham has constructed a story how the hole chiseled in its mortar was made by the bushranger Moondyne Joe. Arm muscles are burning. I can do it. If I have to. Two crossings. Lollipop men – mid sixties – swarthy Portuguese? Dogs are tethered to the fence. Blue Heeler. Schnauzer. Chocolate Labradoodle. Murphy joins the mutts that wait.

Jasper asks me not to come into the classroom. But I want to meet the teacher. Please, I won’t embarrass you, I promise.

Just being me is enough. I have to excuse myself past a group of young boys. The corridor is not wide enough for them and me. Is Jasper hoping they think I am with someone else? Please believe she belongs to someone else. The boys are maybe 10 years old. In their huddle they are tanned, even more so because of their gleaming white shirts. February white.

At the desk sits the teacher. She has a gaggle of young girls around her. All leaning in close. Taking in the smell of her. Girls love their teacher. One girl wears her art shirt; a man’s old business shirt, oversized with sleeves rolled up, ready to get dirty. The teacher and I handshake. We smile widely, warmly at one another and I say I will catch up with her later, when she has time. I don’t want to seem demanding, strange, a Montessori mother. I notice her lines about her mouth – like she smiles a lot and I think this is a good sign.

The room is jammed with desks. I would not get around them they are so close. I imagine people squeezing their way through the maze of tables and pencils falling to the floor as one is bumped. On the uneven boards the pencils will roll and keep rolling. Excuse me. Under the desks I hunt for the pencils, but they are gone. The sound of rolling lead. Desks are upending, papers are falling to the floor. A domino effect of tipping tables. Pencils on the loose. Sliding between the boards. Gone. For it is a small, small desk. No spreading out. No room for loose pencils. Elbows almost touching. Nit city. Close enough for cheating. Close enough for note passing.


Outside again and a trip to reception to hand in a form about Jasper’s asthma plan and order more uniform and a wide brimmed hat. Magpies sitting high in ancient gums warble. Wait till we are nesting, they say. In the distance the back of another former Montessori mother can be seen crossing the grass with a child in a brand new uniform two sizes too big. I want to yell out. Here, over here. Come tell me it is okay. Parents cross the bitumen and mill about. Prams galore. A siren sounds to signal the start of the day. It is a sound bursting with urgency. Fire station-loud. Let the day Begin.


Changing Schools

Yesterday was the first day of the school year and Jasper had gone off in the car with his father to his school where he has gone since he was three years old. At three he was blonder and rounder in the face. His shorts went past his knees. His back pack was almost as big as he was. It is a Montessori school. It is by the beach. It has children speaking in hushed voices. It has teachers called by their first name. It sets no homework. He can wear his board shorts. It has no races and no tests. And yet.

The phone rings and the principle of a close (but out of area) local government school tells me she has a place for Jasper available in grade five. This morning she got an email to say someone is not returning to the school. There is a place if we want and it is okay for him to come in late. But he has gone to school.

I ring Graham and tell him. We will tell Jasper together after school.

I feel sick in the guts.

I am not good at change.

When we tell him the news he looks shocked but quickly his face changes to excitement. He is keen to be moving on. He says he has been at Montessori a long time – in fact as long as most children are in primary school – and is ready for a change. He wants to be in a team. He would like the independence of walking to and from school. He already plays cricket and football with boys that attend the school.

During the day Graham and I go to enrol in the new school and I ask to see the classroom he will be in. The school is a hundred years old. The building is limestone, no doubt quarried from the ground down the hill. In the hallway sepia toned photos of old footballers adorn the walls. The secretary leads us through the corridor, its walls covered by back packs hanging from hooks. On either side are classrooms choc-full of desks in rows. A white board up the front. Children in uniforms; blue shorts, white polo shirts. In one classroom each desk has a helium filled balloon tied to it. I see a male teacher wearing a tie.

I feel as if I am stepping back into my own childhood. This school is not dissimilar to the primary school I attended. With its jarrah boards and it large sash windows, open hoping to catch the breeze. The air is not moving today and it is still and close in the classrooms. I feel a prick of fear. A deer in the headlights kind of panic.

What if I am wrong?

This is my parenting fear. Perennial. What if I am making the wrong decision for him? Graham seems not to have all this anxiety flooding through him. I thank God we are not both the same. Some one is calm and rational. I cannot speak to anyone about Jasper leaving the school without crying. I blubber about it throughout the day.



Telling the Time

For a long time Jasper has had trouble with reading the analog clock. Everyone reads the time off the microwave. 6.50. Little fluorescent squared numbers. Marching on without tick. Without tock. 7.30. Help! 8.15. Shoes on. Didn’t I tell you already. Have you done your teeth? Shoes! It doesn’t help that for most of his life our antique kitchen wall clock has been stuck on ten to eleven – a beautifully in between time.

Recently Graham got the old clock going again. It has a loud tick tock. An incessant heartbeat – a clicking tongue, a real reminder of lateness. It is invasive, but a chance to learn to read the time. An essential skill that seems to have slipped through unlearnt. 20 cents for each correct telling of the time.

We haven’t had dinner. Graham isn’t home. What’s the time Jasper? Ten to eight. No. What time does dad get home? I dunno. How could it be ten to eight. Look at it again. Is the hour hand before the eight or the seven?

Before school the same routine. What’s the time? 8.30? No. How can it be 8.30? What time do we leave home in the morning to get to school? I dunno.

For I am the keeping of time in our house.

Always the one to harp – are you ready? We should go! We should go now. In every house there is a clock watcher. I get it from my mother who kept time for my father. Call Dad. Tell him we are leaving in five minutes. Still she is a keeper of time. She has an egg timer that she sets constantly and while you visit it goes off. But there is no cake to get out of any oven. No sprinkler to move to another patch of grass. Perhaps it is telling her you have been in attendance ten minutes. Or perhaps it is telling her it is fifteen minutes before her lunch. To take the role of clock watcher one vows; Never late. Always early. Always waiting for other people. This is what my mother passed on to me.