I put off writing Christmas cards then I thought of a couple of people I’d like to send one to, then that turned into a list and I started writing the cards and crossing off names but when I looked for their addresses I saw other names I should write to and when I looked up one name in my mother’s old address book I saw her desperate, increasingly large and shaky letters writing out the same name again and again and when I put my address on the back of each envelope I remembered that Martin and I had made a stamp that we used to press gleefully during our annual Christmas card writing evenings.
As the ferry crosses the heads, calm today, no lurching up and down, we leave the Quarantine Station behind on North Head and towards the lollipop-stripes lighthouse on South Head. I’m on the left-hand side of the ferry so I’m looking south, travelling past Watson’s Bay as we turn to head down the harbour. The little footbridge at Parsley Bay stands out white against the dark crevice of the narrow bay. Then Nielsen Park and, in the mouth of Rose Bay, Shark Island. The crowded headland of Point Piper heralds the entrance to Double Bay, Clark Island stands out from Darling Point and the corner rounds to Rushcutters Bay, full of tall-masted boats as bare as the trees behind them. We hurry past Woolloomoolloo – just one grey navy ship today – Fort Denison and Mrs Macquarie’s Point. Farm Cove, the Botanic Gardens and boom – Bennelong Point and the Opera House. The ferry slows to turn left before the Harbour Bridge, negotiating the watery traffic to enter Circular Quay.
These are the bays Teresa Hawkins walked in For Love Alone, where every park, every shadow, every tram shelter was full of the ‘semitones and broken whispers’[i]of lovers. For Teresa Hawkins, the main character in Christina Stead’s novel, For Love Alone, life with her family at Watson’s Bay revolves around water. Harbour water, seawater, cliffs and sand and boats. Teresa longs to join the fishermen; she longs to be the woman she saw with them, tending a boiling pot of fish, with the men bringing her wood for the fire.[ii]The water, the lapping, ceaseless water, is as restless as Teresa herself as she struggles with life as a young woman in the early 1930s. The ferry provides transport into town, company and gossip. It’s what her sister Kitty runs for in escaping her life as the family’s unpaid housekeeper. It’s the viewing platform for social proprieties – only the girls who are engaged can sew for their trousseau on the ferry. It takes Teresa to work every day so she can earn enough money to leave, to go to England.
These are the roads Hurtle Duffield, the main character in Patrick White’s The Vivisector, walked after dinner parties at Boo Courtney’s, or after visiting his lover Hero Pavloussi. Past the streets of Rose Bay and Bellevue Hill that would be shelled by Japanese submarines on 7 June 1942. Past Cranbrook, school for Patrick White and a plethora of other Whites, co-founded by Patrick’s father, home and death-place of Patrick’s great-uncle, James White. Past ‘Cinta’ in Lindsay Ave Darling Point, home of Dorothea Mackellar from the 1930s to 1968.
At Rushcutters Bay Hurtle Duffield would have turned off New South Head Rd to go up to his house in Paddington. If he’d turned the other way, towards the harbour, he might have found himself at Lulworth House, a nursing home in Roslyn Gardens where Patrick White’s partner, Manoly Lascaris, died in 2003 and site of the house where Patrick White himself lived as a child from 1916. Lulworth, according to David Marr, was the inspiration for all of White’s descriptions of harbourside houses,[iii]but when I read about the Whites at Cranbrook between 1873 and 1890, their race season ball ‘one of the great social events of the year’[iv]and their house full of rare china and European art, I can’t help wondering if some of that inheritance also found its way to the ears of the quiet, self-absorbed little boy.
We had some mint at the farm that, contrary to most expectations of mint, thrived in a very sunny, exposed spot that didn’t get a lot of water. It had taken a year to decide whether to live or die, but once it was established it thrived. Before we left the farm I picked a big bag of it, for tea and salads. It turned out to be a miracle bag, staying fresh for weeks. Even when some small pieces blackened, there were still other pieces that were bright green and fragrant. It was only when the mint was nearly finished that I thought that I could have kept it longer by letting it grow in water. So I found a few pieces that still had firm stalks, cut the bottoms off them and stuck them in a glass of water.
Like little shoots of green in spring that speak so loudly of promise and hope and rebirth, the mint stalks developed a fuzz that turned into tiny hairy roots that quickly extended into strings of root circling the inside of the glass. The leaf stem was shooting up too, growing long and lanky. New leaves sprouted, but they were light green and stunted. I put the glass in the tiny gap between the two layers of windows to let it catch the sun, but the water kept on evaporating. My mint needed a proper home.
When you want to grow something and you live in a flat, soil becomes a precious thing. I have found a community garden nearby, with community compost bins. Once or twice a week I go down there to empty our compost bucket, unable to let all that good proto-soil go into the garbage bin. I found a plastic pot on a throw-out pile in the street and took it down to the garden the next time I went with my compost. I wandered the garden, nostalgic for the time when I paid attention to each new leaf and shoot and bud, brushing against the clutch of unruly pumpkin vines, feeling the roughness of their leaves without needing to touch them. I walked under an arch of passionfruit, noted a rosella springing up, admired the size of kale leaves and a luxuriance of beans, hanging decoratively.
There was a mound of soil in a corner that looked like an emptied compost bin. I filled my scavenged plant pot and took it home, potted up the mint over the laundry tub, used an old vegetable tray (non-recyclable, so I’d intended to take it back to the shop) as a saucer, and put the mint back in a spot where it can catch the morning sun and dream of hills that caught the wind and called back to the cries of the black cockatoos.
There’s nature in the city too. On a hot day at Manly a line of cloud bubbled above the horizon. To the north it turned into a bulbous mass, all greys and blacks and whites tumbled together. The blue-grey sea was flat, punctuated by surfers catching what they could close to shore. We walked around to Shelley Beach, looked longingly at a clear green rock pool, almost feeling its soft fresh water cooling us under our clinging clothes.
Later, sitting by my grandson’s cot, I watched the sky lose colour while flying foxes crossed back and forth, their slow heavy flap carrying them past apartment blocks and aerials, power lines and treetops. The closer to night we got, the lighter the sky, until suddenly it switched and I was looking out at darkness, and lights were yellow in windows. The little boy beside me slept, clutching the book I’d used to bribe him into bed.
Another night I packed my handbag with glasses and wallet, headache pills and phone. I tucked a few mints into a corner as if I was going on a trek, or packing my child’s bag for a picnic. At the Opera House the air was thick, more rain ready to fall. Laughter in the forecourt came to me muffled, and lights formed blurry haloes. Japanese girls took photos of each other with the bridge in the background, its beams in the haze forming a subtle geometry of triangles and vertical lines. Seagulls wheeled overhead, flying in and out of the spotlights like disappearing tricks.
Packing the ute in a diminishing patch of shade, a wind blows hot and gusty and slams the door shut. The moisture from last night’s rain must be dried out again by now.
I take treats from the freezer to the chooks to help cool them down. The old boss is moulting, and is strangely slow to respond when I arrive with the food. I thank her for not dying in the night and giving me one more unpleasant task on this loaded day.
By the time the ute is packed, everything fitting in miraculously, but fitting better after a visit to the tip, it’s 3pm and the cafes in Gloucester are closing. Lunch finished at 2pm. Sorry. I take one last look at the main street, a row of shops baking in the blanketing heat. Two people walk on the shady side, looking for things to look at.
I drive out to the edge of town, where I think of the duck family that dwindled, week by week, as the parents led their ducklings back and forth across the road between the golf course and the shelter shed. I drive on, the heat baking my arm through the window of the ute. It’s so hot that I decided against checking the temperature. Knowing would only make it hotter. I drive past the petrol station at Stroud where we always bought our petrol. I stop for tea at the café on the expressway. I drive on, past people who I used to see every week. I am disappearing from their lives, and they are disappearing from mine.
Leaving the house I had checked the rooms, found I’d left the honey strainer in the laundry. I checked the rooms again, looked around the lounge room, thought of taking photos. But what would they show? A small rectangle of furniture, windows, curtains. They wouldn’t show the wonderment I felt every time I saw a frog on the window, one leg askew. Or a swallow on the shed roof, still for a lucky moment, its head so black and glossy, its breast and neck so russet. Photos wouldn’t show us sprawling on the lounge in winter in front of the fire. Or closing the curtains and sitting in the pleasant dim light under the fan in summer. They wouldn’t show how we would catch a glimpse of clouds or moon or stars through a window and go outside to admire billowing or light-catching or glowing or a mass of tiny lights against a black black background, and stand there, caught in thoughts of wonder, of distance and time and the universe.
I stopped checking the rooms, turned, and went out the door.
We’ve been outside paying homage to the night sky, the full moon, the cooling air after yet another hot day. I know this place so well now. I recognise the wet thud of a frog jumping down from wherever it’s been. The flashing light of a plane in the sky, so high up that no sound reaches us as it makes its steady way from north to south.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with this place. I didn’t even know you could fall in love with a piece of land. But I did fall in love with the land and the sky, with the heavy summer beetles that buzz loudly at night. The fussing of parrots as they settle down at dusk.
Now when I walk around the garden, I’m saying goodbye. We haven’t gone yet but I’m readying myself for that day when I won’t be worrying about a drooping avocado tree or welcoming the sudden leaves of a zucchini seed that has decided to sprout.
I’m readying myself to not hear the dawn sounds of the land and the birds waking, the backdrop of cicadas and crickets, the foreground of magpies and blue wrens. The kookaburras crisp and cackly. The dew still on the grevilleas.
Not watching the frills of mist curling around the tops of the trees as I drink my morning cup of tea.
A lone night bird flying silently in the nearly-dark sky, flapping up and diving swooping down, make wide arcing loops through the valley.
Enjoy the moment. It’s the only one you have.
Some years before we built our house here – where it always catches a breeze, on the edge of the hill, above the creek – lightning struck a tree on the bottom side of the track. We found it a couple of days later, still smouldering, and recollected a loud crack on the night of the storm. Heavy rain had meant that the fire hadn’t spread, despite the thickly burnt trunk, split down the middle.
Clouds are building up today, shielding us slightly from the fierce heat of the sun. The weather sites say there is no chance of rain, but we thought we heard the low rumble of thunder just now. A dry storm would cause all sorts of trouble. Fire would run a swift race through these crackle-dry paddocks.
There was a fire a couple of months ago at the corner where the highway meets our turn-off, Bucketts Way. Stark charcoal trunks stripped of foliage revealed houses we had never seen before. There is still a carpet of brown leaves among the blackened sticks, and pennants of copper leaves rustle on the tips of dead branches. But epicormic growth like bright-green velvet outlines the shapes of the trees.
Despite the adverse circumstances – the unusually heavy frost in winter, followed by yet another dry spring – some of the trees are powering on, producing fruit and forming beautiful canopies of fresh green foliage. One of the pears – the Williams – has excelled itself, with a cover of small, perfectly formed pearlets. So I’m disappointed to find, down among the rhubarb, one tiny pear, indented with tooth marks, cast aside in a, ‘phhh, that’s not even ripe’ sort of way.
It’s so dry that there’s a spider in the rain gauge. A young huntsman, it sits on the side of the gauge while the bottom fills up with whatever little showers we are blessed with and a mess of beetles. Christmas beetles, with their hunched shells, that flash rainbows off their glossy brown backs and wings when they fly. When I tip them out some are still alive, and they crawl off in a dazed wonder at being back in the world. The spider clings on, and I put her and the rain gauge back on the fence.
I’m kept awake at night by a frog that favours a spot right outside our bedroom window. I’m not sure if it’s a new frog, or just an old frog in a new position, but I can’t help thinking that it’s playing a zither. I lie in bed imagining its long arms and legs stretched out to pluck the strings with its fingertips. I imagine a jazz frog – happy jazz – in a little black and white striped jacket, a smile on its face as it weaves its esoteric way through the night.
Cool moist night air softly drifts into the house. Night chirrups. In the forest, a bird calls. Toe–toe-wit. Toe–toe-wit. Slow ‘Toe’ then quicker ‘toe-wit’.
Earlier, at dusk, two willy wagtails courting on our deck. One agitated and restless, jumping around, flying up to the rafters and down again, frantically twitching its tail back and forth and calling tch tch tch. The other sitting quietly on the back of a chair, watching, waiting, singing a beautiful melody once or twice. Loud, so close to where we are sitting. The restless one joins the quiet one and they are both still, regarding each other, as if lovingly. They sing quiet little songs to each other. They fly up into the corner of the deck, vanish from sight for a while, then come back down. Is that a post-coital cigarette they’re sharing?
Earlier, as the afternoon waned, two wallabies nibbled at the newly-mown grass. We watched them from the bedroom window. They knew we were there, but weren’t as anxious as wallabies in the past. Their big ears twitch and rotate at the sound of our voices, but they don’t leap away. We can see them so clearly. A white line runs from the mouth up to the eye. Their paws are black, foreshortening their arms. Black tips on their ears and nose. Red highlights on their backs and necks. Thick grey-beige fur elsewhere. Big black eyes, watchful.
Earlier, in the brash afternoon, the two blue wrens that have been frequenting the deck came by. The male – a young bright newly-blue boy – has been attacking his reflection in every window. We hear him tapping at the glass. His favourite spots are marked by a series of little white dots on the ground. He must sit for a while contemplating himself. The light brown female hops around, carefree, not needing either vanity or jealousy to fuel her days.
July 17, 2016
Down by the creek I hear a noisy flapping in the canopy, a bumbling from tree to tree. A heavy flight, wings beating in a high-pitched whirr, and it lands in a tree near me. I stare up, walk around the tree, finally see a bright little eye staring nervously down at me. I can’t see the pink chest but it must be a wompoo fruit dove, big and plump, shades of green in its head and body, bright golden dots strung across its wing.
Up in the garden there are the winter birds. The white-cheeked honeyeaters fill the stunted gums, dashing, hopping, sprinting – joyous, animated. They cluster in the trees, chasing and swirling. Eastern spinebills feed from the gradually opening flowers of a grevillea, their wings agitating in hover. A yellow robin flies urgently around the deck, crashing into a window, righting itself and fluttering off, a magpie in pursuit, zooming, jet-like, after its prey. The robin veers into the mess of shrubbery – curry plant, lemon verbena – and the magpie continues down the hill, returning moments later, putting on an extra cranky burst of speed in its frustration.
Meanwhile, in the chookyard, the broody hen continues to sit on as many eggs as she can collect. I have to be careful when I lift her off (unexpectedly thin bony body under all those puffed out feathers) to make sure she hasn’t gathered any eggs within her wings. I put her on the ground and she fluffs out, has a wander around the yard, a little drink, a peck of food, then returns to her nest.