Centennial Park



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For a very long time before Centennial Park featured a purpose-built waterplay area and ‘wild’ garden for children, it was a source of food for the local people. But in 1811 Governor Macquarie proclaimed 490 acres to the south of South Head Road as common grazing land, and the area that was to become the Centennial Parklands (Centennial Park, Moore Park and Queens Park) was cut off from its previous users.

A report by Val Attenbrow, assessing the evidence for the use of the area by Aboriginal people prior to colonisation[1], finds that the parklands would have provided many types of food and other resources. There were ‘plants that provided fruits, berries, seeds, tubers, nectar as well as leafy vegetables. They also provided wood, bark and fibres used to make tools, weapons and other pieces of equipment.’ It gives examples such as banksia, collected for nectar; melaleuca, ‘used as a wrap/blanket on which children were laid and in which babies were carried’; and grass trees (Xanthorrhoea) – the stems were used for spear shafts, the resin was used as an adhesive to make tools, to patch canoes or baskets, and to fasten objects into people’s hair, and the fronds were used in headdresses in ceremonies. (page 9)

Animals that would have been hunted in the heath and wooded areas of the parklands include ‘kangaroos, wallabies, possums, gliders, echidnas, bandicoots, fruit bats … birds, snakes, goannas and other lizards’. The freshwater wetlands would have been habitat for many types of fish as well as eels, tortoises, frogs and shellfish. Waterbirds would have been present in good numbers, and their eggs could have been eaten as well. Additionally, ‘emus are not on the current list of birds that inhabit the Parklands, [but] they would have been there in the past.’ (page 10)

I suppose the children of those times played in the water, hid from their parents and grandparents and balanced on logs, just as ours do today.

The local Aboriginal people would have used resources from a wider area than the parklands, so the report includes archaeological evidence from the surrounding area, the eastern Sydney peninsula. One find was at Sheas Creek at St Peters, where dugong bones were discovered when the creek was being turned into the Alexandra Canal. The report says:

Cut marks and scars on the bones suggest the animal was butchered and thus killed for food. Two ground-edged hatchet heads found in these deposits at the same time come from ca 70 m away from the dugong bones and whether they were deposited at the same time is not clear. The dugong bone has recently been dated to around 6000 years BP.[2]

The dugong is a sea creature, ‘a large grey brown bulbous animal with a flattened, fluked tail … no dorsal fin, paddle like flippers and distinctive head shape.’[3] They are mammals and can grow to 400 kilograms by grazing on sea meadows. They are thought to have inspired the idea of a mermaid, but you would have to say it was a mermaid with a very unfortunate face with their huge droopy noses and tiny eyes.

I keep thinking about that dugong. At that time, 6000 years ago, the coastline would have been roughly where it is now (18 000 years ago it was 12 km from the present coastline and the sea level was 140 metres below the present level) but that’s still a few kilometres from the spot where the bones were found. Why would you carry a dugong all that way? The creek itself was shallow, surrounded by swamps, so maybe the dugong got trapped there, having travelled up the Cooks River, making it easy prey. These days, when the Alexandra Canal is described as ‘the most severely contaminated canal in the southern hemisphere’[4], and the Cooks River has the unenviable title of ‘Australia’s most polluted river’[5], a dugong would die before it got anywhere near the bridge over Ricketty Street.

[1] https://www.centennialparklands.com.au/getmedia/e32ae90a-e730-4c28-82c4-4b17e9e3c5e1/Appendix_S_-_Pre-colonial_Archaeology_report_Val_Attenbrow.pdf.aspx

[2] Pre-colonial Aboriginal land and resource use in Centennial, Moore and Queens Parks, Val Attenbrow 2002, p22.

[3] https://australianmuseum.net.au/learn/animals/mammals/dugong/

[4] https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/from_sheas_creek_to_alexandra_canal

[5] https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/cooks-river-20190110-h19wqs.html

Convict makes good



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My mother tells me that, when she was very young, she was told by a great-aunt who was very old that she, the great-aunt, when very young, had met her (the great-aunt’s) grandfather William Spikeman, when he was very old.

This chain from me to my mother, to her great-aunt, to her grandfather carries us back exactly two hundred years to February 1819, when two young men were convicted of ‘theft from the person’ at the Old Bailey in London. They were charged with stealing a handkerchief. The owner of the handkerchief, Henry James Lloyd Esq, stated that at midnight on February 16 he was coming from Covent Garden Theatre when he turned and saw, ‘one of the prisoners reaching his hand to a person behind him – I saw my handkerchief on the ground which the other person was picking up.’ The two young men were sentenced to be transported for life.

One of the young men was William Spikeman, 18 years old with no formal education but experience as a labourer in his home town of Devizes in Wiltshire, attracted to London by who knows what tales, or forced to leave Devizes by who knows what hardships. Later that year he was sent with another 134 men – average age between 25 and 26 – on the Canada to Sydney. Their journey took 130 days, arriving on September 1.

Spikeman was initially sent to the newly-built Carters’ Barracks. Demolished in 1901, they were located on the edge of the Old Burial Ground, where Central station now stands. Convicts housed at the Carters’ Barracks worked with a horse and cart, picking up and dropping off loads of produce at the brickfields and the wharves. In 1822 Spikeman was listed as being a bullock driver at Grose Farm, on the edge of the city. In 1823 he was assigned to Reverend Samuel Marsden, who took him to the missionary settlement at the Bay of Islands in New Zealand to work as a herdsman for James Kemp at Kerikeri. Three years later he was allowed to return to Sydney to obtain his ticket of leave. He is recorded as having had savings of 17 pounds, from a salary of 20 pounds per year.

Convicts could apply for a ticket of leave half way through their sentence – for those transported for life this generally meant after 7 years, as they could be freed after 14 years. Obtaining a ticket of leave depended on having good references from your employer, and gave you greater freedoms, such as being able to conduct your own business.

Spikeman continued to obtain stable employment, possibly as a cedar cutter on the south coast of NSW. In 1832 he was granted his certificate of freedom, and in the same year he married Mary Ann Noonan, a young woman who had come from Cork on the Red Rover in 1832, one of a group of girls from orphanages and asylums.

Together, William and Mary Ann Spikeman went to New Zealand and bought land in Kaeo Valley from the Maori owners, remaining on good terms with the chief, Ururoa. When Mary Ann died in 1842 after bearing three daughters, Spikeman and Ururoa’s daughter, Mary Tiki Mangatae, formed a relationship and had five children together.

Spikeman went on to own 1420 acres of land, employing 12 people in his timber business, and became the first postmaster at Kaeo. He died in 1881, with many of his descendants living in the area.

So it’s a big hello to my Maori cousins in this 200th anniversary year of our great-great-great grandfather’s journey to the south.

Australia day





I’ve been learning a new language, but it’s the language of the country I come from. It wasn’t spoken by my ancestors but it’s all around us. I’ve never learnt this language before but I’ve spoken it all my life.

Enough riddles? I’ve been learning Dharug – at least, as much of the language and culture as you can learn in seven and a half hours. It’s the language of the Sydney basin and we use it every day when we go to Parramatta or Cabramatta or Mulgoa, Maroubra, Dural, Bondi, Coogee. We use it when we talk about a wallaby or a wombat or when we call out to each other in the bush. Coo-ee.

I’ve been learning that warami means hello and yanu means goodbye. That dyin means woman and mulla means man. That bada-la means let’s eat and walan means rain.

I’ve been learning that it’s an agglutinative or polysynthetic language – you have a stem, generally a verb,  with a series of suffixes that add meaning such as tense, a pronoun, whether it’s an imperative (command), location.

I’ve been learning about the seasons and how to understand the place where I live. Our climate is best understood in six seasons, indicated by the movement of the animals, the flowering of the plants.

I’ve been learning how to wash away the whitewash.

I’ve been learning that it’s a language and culture that doesn’t like to say ‘no’. We paused and thought about the effect that would have had on brash colonisers.

I’ve been learning about the complex kinship system that ensures that there is a place for every person, and the sophisticated culture that developed this inclusive society over tens of thousands of years. An inclusive culture that taught every member how to live within their society, with a generosity that extended even to the people who tried to destroy it.


Sea fog




I was sitting at a café at the south end of Coogee beach on Wednesday with two friends, laughing about how cold the water had been, how long it took me to get fully immersed, when the beach started to disappear, a veil falling softly over it and its occupants. As we watched, the north headland succumbed. The haze thickened and soon we were marooned, our headland the only open space, all the beaches and headlands north of us blotted out, apocalyptically, as if they had never existed. ‘Sea fog is thick today,’ one of our neighbours said. The sea fog settled then shifted, exposing small sections of view then covering them again. We returned to our coffees and when we looked again it was gone, the golden beach littered with bodies on the sand, the waves coming and going, casually.

I was sitting on the harbour side beach at Manly on Friday, building a castle that became a birthday cake for all of my three-year-old companion’s friends (‘They’re pretend friends’, he explained. ‘We’re real’, he added, pointing first to me then to himself.) when the buildings started to disappear. ‘Look!’, I said. ‘The sea fog.’ My companion looked across, disturbed by the sight of the trees disappearing, the usual buildings behind them vanished by a mist that devoured everything in its way. ‘Will it come over here?’ he asked anxiously. ‘I don’t know’, I said, but later it did wisp across, like spirits whose allegiance you could only guess at.

The ferry captain had been unusually talkative on my way to Manly, replacing the usual drab explanation of the location of the lifejackets with an energetic announcement. ‘I don’t know where we are on the timetable any more! The sea fog was so thick earlier this morning that we’re just running as fast as we can, unloading and loading up and heading off again. We hope we’ll catch up with ourselves eventually.’ He talked on a bit more in this excited way, describing the speed of the vessel. ‘There’s not much traffic on the harbour this morning’, he added. ‘But quite a few fishing boats.’ As we approached the heads we sped past a cluster of small boats, tinnies mostly, with fishing rods hanging over their sides. Ahead of us the distinction between the land’s cliffs and the sea’s wash blurred, smoothed out by the opaque air. A sparse shimmer of sunlight opened a path between the two headlands, and the grey waters parted to make way for its silver sheen.




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Bennelong must have been a very adaptable man. Captured by the British in November 1789 he stayed in captivity, learning the English language and customs and teaching some of his own to the British – an act that seems voluntary as the man captured with him, Colbee, was able to escape almost immediately. In May 1790 Bennelong went back to his people, but returned to the settlement after Governor Phillip was speared at Manly in September – an event that Inga Clendinnen convincingly argues was a ritual spearing, designed to redress the many wrongs that the colonists had committed since settling the area.[i]

Not only was Bennelong willing to change from a life within the only framework that he and his relations had ever known – he was then willing to sail, with Phillip, and Yemmerrawannie, to England. They left Sydney in December 1792. Bennelong was presented to King George III in 1793, and didn’t return to Sydney until 1795, with Governor Hunter. Yemmerrawannie succumbed to respiratory disease in the damp British climate, but Bennelong survived, adopting the new clothes and customs that he found.

It’s hard to imagine a more courageous act than the steps taken by Bennelong and Yemmerrawannie onto the Atlantic, sailing with strangers, on a strange vessel, to a completely unknown land, when only five years earlier their physical world had been defined by what could be walked or travelled in a canoe.

Bennelong was from the Wangal people – most sources say that their territory extended from Goat Island to Auburn and Silverwater, although other sources say it starts further west at Leichhardt.  He told the colonists that Goat Island (more tunefully called Me-mel) belonged to him and his family. Judge-Advocate David Collins noted:

… Bennillong, both before he went to England and since his return, often assured me, that the island Me-mel (called by us Goat Island) close by Sydney Cove was his own property; that it was his father’s, and that he should give it to By-gone, his particular friend and companion. To this little spot he appeared much attached; and we have often seen him and his wife Ba-rang-a-roo feasting and enjoying themselves on it. He told us of other people who possessed this kind of hereditary property, which they retained undisturbed.[ii]

Bennelong’s understanding of ownership would have been very different to ours. Heather Goodall explains it as:

In Aboriginal societies, individual men and women hold particular relationships to land, inherited from parents and arising from their own conception and birth sites … Yet despite the specificity of these relationships, they do not allow automatic rights. Instead they confer obligations and responsibilities … It is the fulfilment of one’s obligations, the active embracing of responsibility, which allows a custodian to be accorded the fullest benefits of their landholding role …[iii]

So if you were barred from carrying out your responsibilities, by a fence or a gun, you would lose your whole heritage.

[i]Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers, Text Publishing, 2003.

[ii]An Account of the English Colony of NSW Vol 1 by David Collins, Appendix 1X. http://gutenberg.net.au/first-fleet.html

[iii]Heather Goodall, Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales 1770-1972, Allen & Unwin in association with Black Books, 1996, p9.

It’s St Patrick’s Day tomorrow


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The Irish made up about one quarter of all those transported to Australia in the nineteenth century, and nearly half of all assisted passages between 1829 and 1851. There were 2253 Irish orphan girls sent to NSW between 1848-1850[i]. My own great-great-great grandmother, at the age of 18, was one of 140 female orphans sent from Cork and other Irish towns to Sydney in 1832.

Huge numbers of young Irish people arrived in Australia without the means to return, never seeing their families again. They set about creating a sentimentalised and untouchable version of Ireland, complete with a revival of Gaelic speaking, Celtic symbols, little people and shamrocks.

In 1898, when the Devonshire Street cemetery was reclaimed to build Central Station, the Irish community carried the remains of Michael Dwyer and his wife triumphantly in a procession to Waverley cemetery. Dwyer had been sentenced to transportation in 1803 for his role in one of the Irish Catholic uprisings, the insurrection of 1798, yet he received a pardon in 1810 and became high constable of Sydney in 1815. By 1820 he owned 620 acres of land, of which 100 acres had been granted to him.[ii] The Sydney Morning Herald reported with unmistakeable sentiment on Monday, May 23 1898:

The first celebration in honour of the Irish patriots of 1798 took place yesterday, and was made the occasion of a great public demonstration. The remains of Michael Dwyer and Mrs Dwyer, which were during the week exhumed from the Devonshire-street cemetery, were placed in a coffin and mounted upon a catafalque in St Mary’s Cathedral during yesterday’s service. At 1 o’clock Cardinal Moran … pronounced the final absolutions and delivered a brief address, eulogising the patriotism of the Irish chieftain and exhorting his bearers to cultivate a similar love of country. At a quarter to 2 o’clock, when the coffin was placed in the hearse, an immense concourse had gathered without St Mary’s Cathedral.

It took the procession two hours to reach Waverley cemetery, the march attended by many thousands of people and the streets lined with ‘great numbers’ of people, ‘and green was displayed from many hundreds of buttonholes’. When they reached the vault, prayers were said, the Irish flag was raised and the foundation stone for the Irish monument laid. Speeches dwelt on ‘the heroism and patriotism of the Irishmen who rose in arms in 1798’.

The strength of the Irish as a community grew: in October 1916 it led to a political crisis. The Easter uprising of 1916 in Dublin had dulled the willingness of Irish people the world over to cooperate with the British. In Australia, the waning Irish support for the war effort helped to bring in a ‘No’ vote on the referendum on conscription.

By June 1920, when a banquet to honour Melbourne’s very Irish Archbishop Mannix had failed to include a toast to the king, the Sydney Morning Herald’s mood had changed. Under the heading ‘Sinn Fein in Australia’ its editorial thundered against the Irish:

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that here in Australia is a force which works steadily for mischief, which seeks ever to bring about disruption and schism … there is no room for disloyalty in Australia … there is also no room for the perpetuation of old-world feuds; here we are all Australians, whatever the land of our birth … if the malcontent cannot give expression to their opinions without offending our most cherished convictions and sowing strife in our midst, let them be silent.[iii]

We still hear this language around us, and it is just as dangerous today as it was then. There are still people insisting that there is only one way of thinking in Australia, that everyone agrees on what our ‘cherished convictions’ might be, and for anyone who even wants to ‘give expression to’ opinions that differ, ‘let them be silent’.

[i] O’Farrell, P. The Irish in Australia. UNSW Press, 2000, p23, 69, 74

[ii] CMH Clark. A History of Australia Vol 1. Melbourne University Press 1962. P.388.

[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, June 19 1920.

The prawn cocktail



As the price of prawns rises like a reindeer pulling a sleigh, and the Sydney fish market prepares for a 36-hour trading marathon leading up to Christmas, it’s a good time to contemplate the prawn cocktail.

The seafood cocktail’s popularity peaked in the 1970s. It was on the menu for the Ladies’ Night on 26 June 1970 at the Alouette Restaurant, 383 George St ($12.50 a double: mains included T-bone Mexicain – Grilled T-bone with Mexican Sauce; Chicken Monte Carlo – Half Chicken covered with Cheese and Bacon; Fish du jour – Grilled or fried); at the Royal Australian Artillery Fourty Fourth Annual Gunner Dinner, School of Artillery, North Head, Manly on 7 August 1971 (‘Queensland Prawn Cocktail’); at the lunch given by Sir Ralph and Lady Richardson for the cast of ‘Lloyd George knew my Father’ at the Sebel Town House on October 4 1973 (‘Avocado with a filling of Evans Head King Prawns’); at a banquet held at the Opera House on November 12 1976 ‘to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of Transfield’ (‘Avocado Seafood’); at the Hyatt Kingsgate Hotel on 3 December 1976 there was ‘Shrimp Cocktail Florida’ for the 1976 Bookman’s Award presentation dinner (award given to Beatrice Davis, who set up then headed the editorial department at the publishing firm, Angus and Robertson’s, from 1937-1973: “old A&R authors remember Beatrice in that old Castlereagh Street office (now burnt out), or in the George Street ‘studio’ where the talk and wine were good, and where the food was ‘ambrosial’ as Lady Hasluck described it.”[i]); at a dinner to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s birth at Tattersall’s Club on 16 June 1978.[ii]

The timing of the dinner for Beatrice Davis would have been enormously significant at the time, as she had been sacked from her role as editor at Angus and Robertson in 1973 after nearly 40 years of dedication to the company. Her influence on Australian literature extended beyond the publishing house. She facilitated a literary circle, meetings and journals, and was on the Miles Franklin Award judging panel from its inception in 1957 until 1992. But her style didn’t suit Gordon Barton and Richard Walsh’s new regime at A&R – even the Australian Dictionary of Biography allows that, ‘Her preference was for developing the literary tradition begun in the nineteenth century… Increasingly she avoided the contemporary urban themes favoured by writers like Dymphna Cusack, Ruth Park, D’Arcy Niland, and Kylie Tennant’ and that, ‘In her pursuit of literary quality she would ignore such matters as design, production costs, and marketing’. Nevertheless, the shockwaves from the dethroning of such an influential member of the Sydney publishing scene must have been gigantic.

Beatrice Davis and the ‘70s are long gone. If you’re in the throes of composing your own prawn cocktail, please spare a thought for the times we live in. Australian prawns are deemed ‘sustainable’ – imported prawns are not.


[i] Clipping from SMH 4/12/76 attached to menu

[ii] based on menus held in box: Ephemera – Menus, 1930-1989, State Library, NSW.

Returning to Rome


As we leave Siracusa, the train runs by a massive refinery, deserted, a labyrinth of pipes and smokestacks. Then a town, Augusta, surrounded by lowlands and rusting boats in the sea. The train tracks reach the coast and the view gets wealthier. A spit leads from a little beach to a tiny island, with a winding path up to a scenic stone house. Only two weeks ago, on our way down, there were people everywhere, covering the beach, the spit, the causeway. Today it’s cooler, and the few people on the beach huddle into jackets. The summer is over.

There is a woman sitting directly opposite me. She has grey curly hair that springs out from her head, a long face with an aristocratic nose. I wonder if she is a contessa. We had seen a contessa in Rome at a restaurant we were eating in. The owner had taken a phone call then raised his eyebrows. He had put the phone down then hissed out to his staff, ‘The contessa is coming’. My limited Italian grasped the word ‘contessa’ and the meaning from the sudden transformation of the sleepy restaurant into a hive of anxious table adjusting and cutlery shining. The room stilled as the owner opened the door to a woman whose demeanour, clothes and jewellery screamed ‘contessa’. Her entourage consisted of a grey-haired man in an impeccable suit, and three teenagers in expensively dressed-down jeans and t-shirts. The teenagers spoke French but she insisted that they try to speak Italian. I had to force myself to take my eyes off her.

The woman opposite me has much less jewellery than the contessa, but it’s still a lot for a train journey. There are rings on most of her fingers and three or four gold necklaces hanging against her neck, the finer ones wound around the chunkier ones. When she catches my eye and smiles I realise I’ve been staring, trying to disentangle the gold chains. She had smiled at me earlier when the man with the coffee cart came by and Philip asked if I wanted anything. I must have grimaced in reply. The train had left soon after dawn and I had only just managed to swallow a little tub of sweet yogurt before we were out of the hotel, standing on the street among the sweeping and the water rushing in the gutters, then getting into a taxi. The coffee cart man looked at us, bored, and Philip said, ‘It’s Italy! It’s probably ok!’ I said, ‘Oh no, it’s not that – I just don’t want one.’ And he said, ‘You won’t get anything else today.’ I had just shaken my head then, annoyed by his insistence. The woman had looked up from her book and given me a strange smile, along with an assessing look, conspiratorial even, that took in everything from the bags under my eyes to the shiny new wedding band on my finger. I had smiled back and quickly looked away. But this time she catches me staring at her, at those jangling, twining chains. I have to smile back and hold it, and search my sleepy brain for any word of greeting in Italian. Her eyes become searching, and again she gives me that look. It’s as if she’s looking right into me, into my bra suddenly two sizes too small, my queasy stomach, my instant irritation with everything. I have nowhere to hide from that look of hers and am almost unsurprised when she pats her tummy, and breaks into a wider smile. She nods and pats her tummy again. Philip looks up from his book. He must have felt me squirming. I can’t outright deny her what she knows, but I’m not going to admit it either. I shrug, and keep smiling, then go out to the corridor, making my way past Philip, frowning, and the three sets of Italian knees. I go down to the toilet, not yet evil. I need a place to think. Again.

I stay in the little room with the only slightly sticky floor until someone knocks and I have to head back to the carriage. I walk slowly down the corridor with its view of the other side of the tracks – rocks and scrubby hills.

Philip has his eyes shut, his head leaning against the back of his seat. The gold-chain woman glances at me, then reaches out a protective hand as the train lurches and I fall backwards. ‘Attenzione!’ she says kindly. Philip opens one eyelid then shuts it again. I rearrange myself to stare out the window.

Outside the train, two people pull a beachtowel tight around their shoulders while a toddler plays on the black sand. The toddler points to the train. A man sits on a black rock high above the sea, fishing.

At Messina our train drives onto the ferry. We know what to do this time, and go up to the deck. Today there is no need to peer into corridors and behind doors. We go straight to the bar to buy our arancini, and take them outside to watch Sicily disappear into the haze. Just two weeks ago we had entered the port, pointing and exclaiming, entranced by its sheltering arm, its tall plinth and golden statue.

The young man from our carriage huddles nearby over a power point, trying to charge his phone. Philip looks out beyond the ferry’s railings and says quietly, ‘What was all that about? The tummy patting?’ He looks sideways at me, shyly. His eyes open wide and vulnerable. His lips soften, and a grin he can’t control starts to fill his face. A grain of rice on his lip wobbles. I pity him and his easy, gooey hope full of sunshine and roses and cherubs.

‘I’m a bit late. It’s probably nothing. I don’t know why she did that’, I say in a rush. ‘I don’t know how she could tell’, I add reluctantly.

‘That’s very exciting’, Philip says, taking my hand. ‘That’s happened quickly.’

‘Too quickly’, I say. He’s still smiling, not picking up on my very unexcited face. ‘I’m not ready’, I have to say, staring at him until he understands.

The announcement is made to return to the train and we go back down the steep metal stairs into the hold, gripping the salty, thick-painted handrail. A passenger talks to a workman as we wait for the train to move. For the workman it’s all commonplace, the train broken into two pieces, the section from Palermo joined onto our carriages, the shunting.

A sixth person has joined our compartment, so it’s full now. There’s nowhere for his bag. I shrug like an Italian. It’s so full that when one person changes how they’ve crossed their legs we all have to reposition ourselves.

Outside, grape vine terraces rise up the steep hillsides. A large pink panther has been given new life, reassigned from being a toy to a scarecrow. Flashing past the window there’s an orange house, then a lemon yellow house with a lime green wall. They both have washing lines strung across their yards, clothes flapping so hard I can almost hear them. We run through a small town full of shabby apartment blocks bristling with TV antennas and satellite dishes. The clothes are more sombre here, still and silent on lines strung along the edges of balconies. I think about how very not ready I am. I’m not ready to give up on the recent promise of promotion at work, or the steady hours of concentration. The more I stare at the washing lines and the fences and the TV antennas, the more I see that a baby would mean me, not him, constantly tending the washing line and the kitchen sink, zombie-like for lack of sleep and always covered with clinging hands.

The olive nets are stretched out on the ground under the trees. Two weeks ago they were still bundled up. Even the rivers look organised, reshaped, in this intense countryside. Near Scapri the train runs in a narrow band between sharp mountains and the sea. There’s a completely abandoned hill town, its broken walls forming curlicues against the sky. Every mountain looks like the one we looked at from our agriturismo near Bosco, which now feels like an eternity ago, a different world where we sat on the balcony, loved up and drowsy, watching their little dog Palmyra stand on guard. He would sit lionlike on the edge of the patio, looking out into the olive trees, down the hill. On our last night he sat as usual, listening to the bells of the goats and the other dogs barking around the hills. Then he let out a gruff bark himself, and sat upright, his skinny front legs straight and tall, his skew ears at their odd angles, his curled tail flat on the ground. He surveyed his domain more keenly, then suddenly he was off, running down the hill barking sharp warning yips. When it was nearly dark I saw a small tan and black dog running through the olives. I expected to hear Palmyra’s indignant barks at this intruder but instead he appeared running happily behind, his white coat shining in the gloom.

Philip nudges me and stands up, pointing with his eyes towards the corridor. The gold-chain woman keeps her eyes on her book and moves her knees to one side so I can stand, and we both shuffle out.

Philip walks down the corridor a little then leans on the steel bar in front of the windows and hisses, ‘You said that very quickly. That it wasn’t going to happen.’

‘This time! Not this time!’ I reply.

His face is like a stranger’s. I barely recognise him. His cheeks are hollow, his eyes wet and gaunt. Even his forehead is higher, as if his hair has receded in this one afternoon. I look for the man I loved. What did he look like? I feel like reaching into my pocket to check the photo on my phone.

‘You weren’t going to tell me, were you? You were going to deal with it … you were going to just make that decision …’

‘No!’ I lie indignantly. ‘No!’

Our voices are fogging up the window. A little girl out in the corridor with her father peers up at us with frank interest.

Philip turns away impatiently and walks back to our carriage. He folds his arms and slaps at one unlucky elbow with his hand as he waits for me to go in first. I wriggle in between the knees, saying ‘Scusi! Scusi!’ and Philip tunnels through behind, head down.

Outside there is a river, wide, rocky, shallow but fast. No-one else looks out the window. Across from me the gold-chain woman reads an analysis of the Divine Comedy. Next to her a man reads Stephen King and next to him the young man who has whinged ever since he got on stabs at some game on his phone, twisting and exhaling loudly. He struck up a conversation with the woman next to Philip when he got on. When she came back from her first break he leaned over and they whispered together about it before he too went out, bringing back to the carriage the dirty smell of cigarette.

The train stops for 15 endless minutes in Naples, Philip’s hand avoiding mine. The Stephen King man stands up, forcing our knees together for one burning moment. The young whinging man is replaced by a man with a laptop who sits and bashes the keys as he waits for his internet connection. I read the same page of my book over and over until the train jolts forward and the platform recedes.

Outside, a pink house shines through the early dusk. Another hour to go until we get to Rome.

We had started in Rome, full of romance and relief, the wedding over, the honeymoon begun. Out of the pale blue late Sunday afternoon sky came the sound of musicians starting up in Campo dei Fiori with a medley of old hits for accordion and violin. The rich smell of truffle oil drifted out into the streets. Then the bells started pealing, random clanging filling the air. We stayed where we were in Piazza Farnese, leaning into each other with our hands clasped, fingers pulsing, idly watching a group of children playing soccer. Half a dozen boys and a wild little girl, half the size of the boys and twice as determined. When the boys wandered off she stayed in the square, practising her kicks, bouncing the ball off the front, the back, the side of her shoe, off her knees in the high-stepping fashion of a team in training. A woman called out and she called back. ‘Maa-ma!’, in that particular Italian child way, the inflexion rising on the Maa. Not yet! It’s not time to go in yet! She stood pleading, then ran off, bouncing the ball and kicking.

Fields and grapevines gave way to darkness, then streetlights and lines of cars in tangled streets as we arrived in Rome. I didn’t see the gold-chain woman leave the carriage. She must have gone when we were struggling with our bags. Her part in our lives was over. We got off the train, left the terminus and stood in the queue for a taxi. We were driven to our hotel and we found our room, stood on a tiny balcony looking out at the alleyway beneath us and a ragged tip of the Colosseum beyond and we breathed again, and pretended that nothing had happened. Then that pretence grew in our hearts and displaced nights of love on balconies. It brought us restlessness, and jagged barbs that tore holes in the fabric of our newly-promised life.


Rear window


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While the latest news is that Sydney’s housing prices are falling and construction figures are in decline, we’re all living with the past frenzy of building projects. Like many, our foreground has recently been shortened by a new block of flats. They’ve cut out our view of the park’s spreading fig trees, leaving us with only the greenery gleaned from a neighbour whose escapee pot plants make a bid for the sun in the patch of ground next to the wheelie bins. Asthma weed grows where it can, and agapanthus line the street. One of those weedy vines with white flowers and choko-like fruit full of seeds completes the picture.

For over a year while they built those flats a crane loomed large, its movements slow and stealthy, until the night when the street was closed off and workers climbed around it like fireflies, their torches flickering as they dismantled the structure. In the morning it was gone, and I couldn’t understand the empty space I was looking at.

Now the view from our bedroom window is like Rear Window. Tonight the top flat is lit up so we can see an extravagantly furnished balcony. Large glass doors open and shut as people walk between there and the low-slung couches of the lounge room. I watch for drug deals, or a woman who waits for her sailor.

We saw a version of Rear Window at this year’s Sydney Film Festival – Number 37. Made in South Africa, it places the action in a rundown neighbourhood of flapping garbage and empty corridors where people keep their heads down. More violent, more complex, more visceral than the original, its leads are a woman who can’t be supressed and a man who watches his neighbours from an apartment with a wall the colour of blood.

The Sydney Film Festival has been running since 1954, and since 1974 it has been based at the State Theatre. Held in winter, it’s a time of dark cold evenings, the wind whipping along George St as you rush to a 6pm session. Queues form along Market St, waiting for the foyer doors to open, and cars splash water from the gutters onto the unsuspecting unlucky.

The first time I went to the film festival it was with a true believer with her thermos and sandwiches. We sat in the theatre all day, watching films from Argentina and Romania and Mexico and Spain as the auditorium got fuggier with damp clothes and the occasional curry or egg sandwich introduced from the outer world. My friend had walked up to and through the foyer briskly, leaving me to goggle at the mirrors, the filigree gold lace doors, the gothic reliefs, the terrazzo floor – everywhere gold, every surface embroidered, embellished. She hurried on past the sweeping marble staircase and columns then into the auditorium with its massive chandelier and plush seats. The dome, the statues, the clock – not a straight line or a plain corner anywhere. I stared, starstruck.

Jacaranda time

This bowing down to the jacaranda. These tales of streets of jacarandas created from seedlings given to women by their midwives after giving birth. What is this adoration, this worship, this myth-making?

You do know they’re not native to Australia? That they’re an import from South America. In Brisbane they’re seen as an ‘invasive species’ and regulated under the Natural Assets Local Law (but, such is the strength of their mystique, feature as the image on the link to the section about street trees on the same website[1]). In Sydney they’re not classified as a weed but you’re advised not to grow them near the bush, as they can spread and crowd out native plants.

I see them from the ferry, a haze of purple between greener trees. As a child I associated them with the blue rinse of my schoolfriends’ mothers. They still retain that irksome taint of the suburbs, where the best you could do to liven up the awful grind through life was to cover incipient grey hairs with blue dye, or put on an annual show of short-lived purple blooms, doomed to fall in the first shower of rain and lie deep and slushy, tripping up every unsuspecting passerby who will slide on the discarded, slippery muck.

The flowers that fall daintily to the ground on a sunny day are even more dangerous. You walk down the path in your bare feet and tread on a dazed bee crawling out of the long bell of the bloom. Your winter-tender feet meet a sharp sting of bee on the warm spring path. You’re hopping, the bee is dying. The jacaranda, I’m sure, is laughing. It etches another notch on its trunk.


Cemeteries and skeletons


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I imagine for everyone there’s a place where the air compresses with the weight of collected memory. A street or suburb or dirt track where a child’s eyes saw the days go by, horribly long, frustratingly swift. For me those places lie in Burwood and Strathfield.

Driving through those streets that I no longer know, trying to get to Rookwood cemetery – blocked off by highways new to me but probably 20 years old – I find myself driving down the street where I lived until I was 10. I didn’t intend to drive down there, through that storm of tiny long-gone moments. The drivers around me knew the streets better, knew when to take the inside lane, when to slow for a turn, but they didn’t know the landscape as I did. I saw a place invisible to them. I could barely see what was there, my eyes expecting children on their bikes and scooters, our old fence, our tiny Morris Minor in the driveway, the white stucco on the house that, unaccountably, I hated. And yes, the street is narrower, the houses smaller, all the dimensions of the place are reduced.

The cemetery is also changed, so neat and trimmed. I remember a wild place, of fallen headstones and rampant grasses, a place I would reach by bike to ride around and feel the emptiness. Now it is tamed and signposted, the roads all smooth and the various denominations carefully separate.  I drive past a sign indicating the War Graves section, then the Muslim section, where large shrubs and small trees turn a cemetery into a garden. Three men with clipped beards walk back to a car. Paying their respects. My turn-off comes soon after, and I have to find the right set of people in this sombre time, where gatherings of mourners mill around with heavy, soft faces.

Historically, the dead don’t rest in peace in Sydney. The first cemetery that we know of was created in 1792.

In the early days of Sydney’s settlement, most European settlers died and were buried within a mile of their place of arrival. The exact location of these first burial grounds is unknown. The large number of deaths after the arrival of the second fleet in 1790 made finding a suitable site at a distance from the settlement a matter of urgency.[1]

The site chosen, at the corner of George and Druitt Streets, was used between 1792 and 1820. In 1869 when that site was required for the new Town Hall, the remains of those whose graves were uncovered by construction were transferred to Rookwood. Subsequent excavation around the Town Hall has revealed that this exercise was far from thorough, with the discovery of many more tombstones, graves, coffins and skeletons.[i]

When the Old Burial Ground was closed, the Devonshire Street cemetery was established, but this in turn was officially closed in 1888 so that the main train terminus could be extended from Redfern to Central. Relatives were informed that they could move the remains of their loved ones to a place of their choosing. The unclaimed bodies, and their headstones, were removed to Botany Bay in 1901. But again, not every grave was relocated and last week the entire country heard of the discovery of bones – believed to be from the old Devonshire Street cemetery – during excavation work for the ill-fated Sydney light rail project.