Rottnest Winter 2019

Rotto Bike

At short notice I book four nights at Rottnest.

Weather is predicted to be cloudy, raining and cold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Baghdad


Magic Miller

One hot day trapped inside a Fremantle cottage the boy discovers card tricks.  After the I’m bored. Forced into finding something other than my offerings. The excitement of washing up is declined. Knock yourself out hanging up the wet washing, I suggest. He will not mention the boredom again. The plantation shutters are closed, the jarrah boards still cool beneath the bare sole. The overhead fan shifts chunks of hot air about the room. In the distance there is the holler of children in the municipal pool, running the length of the giant inflated crocodile. A sliver of me remembers having to be there, steamy by the pool, while the boy did this. The interminable waiting till his finger skin was pruned and pale and he would finally agree to leave the chlorine and head home.

At first it is ordinary cards. Later Bicycle cards. The magician’s choice. Difficult for hands with a small span. Still. Soft touch. Cushioned. False cuts. Shimmery and capable of the perfect slide.

He is learning terminology. Like a new language. As pretty as French. Like we, the would-be renovators, learn that bricks come rumbled.

He is sent his grandfather’s old magic books. They arrive in a regular post pack to Jasper (Magic) Miller, despite the old man’s mistrust of Australia Post. The grandfather had, only the day before, taken them to the second-hand store. He went back down to retrieve them before they were placed on the shelf. That is something he might not do for anyone. It is hard to describe magic in photographs and harder still to relate tricks in words. There is tenacity to admire in a man who learnt his skills from the mustard Scarne. The print is small. It takes more patience than most people have these days. It takes concentration and rereading. Peering. It makes you do that thing with your brow. It requires your brain to muscle hard. Deciphering. Who has the time these days?

 

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Magic Miller can use You tube and the internet. He can see the trick slowed down in front of him and practice before a screen like it is a mirror. He can replay and rewind till all he needs is practice. This too is something harder to do these days. Who really wants to practice to be good at something? Just as people don’t expect to suffer, or wait or have pain, they don’t expect to have to work at something. Yet there is no other way. Not for anything. And certainly not for magic. For the reality is so very ironic that really, really good magic takes the opposite of how it seems. Effortless. It is all work. Very very hard work.

The texts are old and musty with that familiar old book smell. Like the taint of an old Aunt’s house, or a dimly lit second hand shop. The internal pages have yellowed and the text block grey. Fingers have smudged and marked. I think of restorers who sand paper the edges of books, taking a grain of paper from the book to restore it to whiteness. Graham recalls the books from his own childhood in his father’s house. They are instantly familiar. Like they have been shelved in his memory, along with the smell of them, down a dark hallway. He may have thumbed through them, on a monsoonal afternoon, in a Hong Kong house at the top of Peaceful Bay. In the background an older brother’s Bowie’s seven-inch Star Man on the turntable.

Magic is good for the boy’s adolescent brain. It is hands on. It is concrete. A perfect brother for a single child who lies on his belly in his bedroom. From the seventies. Like playing with a yo-yo. It is still real. The repetition. The practice of moving his hands. Of doing something smoothly and succinctly. Just as juggling is. Just as skate boarding is. Sleight of hand, sleight of cognition. Synaptic magic.

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Rottnest 2016

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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


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