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

Rottnest Winter

Three women with a median age of fifty go to Rottnest. Essentials have been packed. Bewley’s tea, a stainless steel teapot, Borsin cheese, bottles of Pinot Gris, my preferred washing up liquid and scrubber, the Tefal pancake pan, the Global knife.

We take various half-finished craft projects and yet started ones. C. is the aficionado of all things textile and while A. and I are less skilled, we are no less enthusiastic. C. has hot machine washed and caused the felting of op-shop jumpers of various colours – a teapot cosy will be hand sewn and embroidered from these.  A mish-mash of wools are brought – these will form many various crochet hexagons for the purpose of ? That’s not the point. It’s the doing. The luxury of hours and hours of doing without interruption from the word “Mum”.

Children and partners have been dispensed with. Mine are overseas. C. and A. have teenagers and they have been left to cope, or else. Skill-up kids.

A. is making a blanket for her one-day house in Brittany. Little strands of sky blue wool mark the squares her partner has knitted. Like my knitting project, hers has mistakes – the odd dropped stitch, wayward yarns. We don’t know enough about knitting to know how to fix errors, so we just carry on knitting. One of C.’s tasks this weekend will be to show me how to pick up a dropped stitch.

In the South end of Thompson Bay, known as Nappy Alley, we three settle into our chalet. No nappy duty for us. Even the sound of children is something of an anathema. We have a room each. A. makes sure each bed has its plastic sheeted mattress covered by the blanket before it is remade for extra comfort. We have enormous bags with hardly a thing in them. I have brought a hot water bottle, but the weather does not require it.

There is time for walks, and even swims (dunks really) and more than enough time for craft. A. and C. even do a water-colour each and manage to play scrabble at the same time as knit. We cover our faces in papaya peel-off masks. It does nothing to appease the wrinkles. We exfoliate with loofas. For breakfast we have pancakes with thin slices of green apple and honey yoghurt. For lunch we have tomatoes and asparagus on toast spread with Borsin.

On the sunny patio we drink Pinto Gris. We attempt to nap but simply end up fighting with our blankets.

On the third day A. goes back to the mainland since her job won’t let go.

C. and I go to the shop for one more bottle of Pinot Gris and some smoke salmon to put in our fritatta. The shop is largely deserted, as is the whole island. We are at the counter waiting to pay. A middle-aged woman in front of us has purchased a souvenir plastic place-mat of Rottnest (the kind of thing you can’t imagine buying), but instead of exiting, she wanders back into the store. She is short and round with a full length black skirt and comfort sandals. She has a blonde bob and a perplexed look on her face. She shuffles, like the signals her brain gives her feet aren’t quite strong enough. We are both turned to watch her. She is that kind of person. Is she lost? Is she not sure how to exit the shop? We are both observing her and smiling at her ineptitude when we notice her large pink underpants appear from beneath her long skirt and fall, in an ankle-hugging way, around her sandals. What do you do when you see someone’s underpants slip down? You look away.

We leave the shop and sit outside on a bench to discuss the woman and her underpants. Fifty something with no elastic. We feel a mixture of girlish giggling and pathos.

I remember being a child at school with underpants devoid of elastic. What horror! Firm one minute – sprung elastic the next. A tight-fisted gripping of the cotton beneath the skirt. A staying at your desk as long as possible. A cursing of the inequality of dresses and skirts. A strange waddle on the way home. But your mother sorted it for you. Those one were chucked out. Stupid pants!

Miss Falling Undies emerges from the shop. Her dignity is recovered, but something has gone on in the shop afterwards. She has lost something? Money perhaps. She sits on a nearby bench with another woman, older and a potential big sister or even a mother. The older woman has white hair and a sensible perm. She has slacks on. She’s cross. The older woman is saying, This is why no one can be bothered with you… The underpants woman sits facing her looking glum. She’s heard all this before. She has no defence. Her bottom lip is pouting, her eyes cast down and she looks like a six-year-old being told off. No one can be bothered with you.

I wonder did she remove the knickers, ball them up, and put them in her bag? After all the skirt is long. Did she hoist them up in the cereal aisle between the Weetbix and the Nutrigrain? What kind of holiday is she having whilst being chided by a relative? Can she tell her rebuker she needs new underpants now?

I see a red post box and think how if my mother was alive I would be compelled to send her a postcard. She would like to hear the story of the woman whose underpants needed new elastic.




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.