I was born in 1940.
These are some of my memories of living in Tasmania during World War Two.
Image of my mother reading to Skete the dog in 1942.
The walls of the bomb shelter were papered with large Bible-quality maps of many countries, and maps of the whole world, the world a soft and beautiful place, a place for dreams and voyages and adventures. The oceans were a dreaming egg-shell blue, the countries watery pastel shades of biscuit and eau de nil and faint peach blush. The veins of the rivers traced wandering spider webs, shaded sides of mountains, and mountain ranges were fine smudges from a fairy’s feathered paintbrush. This was the world. Before Pearl Harbour, before Hiroshima, once upon a time, before Darwin was bombed, before the U-boat got into Sydney Harbour, once upon a time, just there, just below Forty Degrees South.
We called it ‘the trench’ and it was located at the end of the garden, behind a row of apple trees, across the path from the fowl house, near the cage where we kept the love-birds, backing onto a wild stretch of wild mint laneway that led over the hills and faraway between the clumps of yellow gorse to the dairy where we used to go to singalong to the cows at milking time, and to collect white enamel buckets of cherry plums in summer from a wild witch woman called Dolly. Salty butter she sold us too, and warm frothy milk fresh from the cowshed in a scrubbed tin billy with a lid, the money with a note in a pocket or a hot and curled up hand. Skete came with us at our heels, romping and bomping along the lane, across the hill, down the muddy pathway to Dolly’s back door under the huge plum tree.
Skete died in 1943. She was pretty old and when she died she had nowhere to go because she was a dog. So she moved into my dreams and I would wake up certain that she was there beside me licking my face, rolling on her back to be tickled, surfing in the long grass which lay in glaucous waves all over the white counterpane. This was the duck egg ocean at the far edge of the known world where dogs and people went on being born and living and playing and dying in an almost ordinary way, almost ordinary but shadowed over by a war in which the guns were elsewhere but the enemy was within, within the fragile gates of the dreams and imaginations of children in the trench. The army, the navy, the air force, the troops, the countrymen, the countrywomen, the nation, the Commonwealth, the allies were fighting the enemy, Hitler, the Japs, the Germans. Everything about the war was on the wireless and in the paper, and postcards sometimes came from fighting men, men at war. The words I learned were limited, but one was Churchill, one was London, one was blitz, one was bomb, one was kill, and another one was die. Another one was shelter. Somewhere to hide, somewhere to go, somewhere safe. The bomb shelter. Skete died and my grandmother died and nothing stopped and the war went on.
It was 1943 and my grandmother died and my dog died, and my grandmother had a grave at the Carr Villa cemetery with white china flowers and crossed hands under a strange glass bell, and Skete had a place beneath the nectarine tree and my father, a man who was fond of digging down and building up, had excavated and constructed a bomb shelter behind the apple tree, next to the fowl house. White china flowers like icing sugar and white bone crossed hands, wishing you goodbye. Ivory hands wave farewell, toss a bunch of blue bleu blau forget-me-nots and they blow a kiss and the head turns and the hand waves and the lover, loved one, lovely fades and disappears and is gone on her journey to the stars of the night sky. My grandmother had died and gone to heaven to be manufactured, transformed into a shining, twinkling star high, high in the night sky where you could go out in your dressing gown and slippers and look for her, look up at her. Speak, wave, smile. A twinkle, a sparkle, a glitter, a blaze, a pinpoint of pure and amazing light. Maybe an angel. Such things have happened. Guarding, maybe she is guarding us, looking out for us, interceding, singing, loving us forever and ever, over and over again. Flying and floating and fluttering. She was fabulous, the way she was drifting along in the evening sky. And her house was just a place we never went to any more. No more bread buttered at the end of the loaf and sliced off against the bosom of her apron. No more squatting by the fish pond looking for the goldfish lurking beneath the lily leaves in the shadows of the mysteries of the deep dark water, so dangerous you could fall in and drown in the weeds. Topple over and splash and fall in and disappear in the depths, green and murky where the goldfish lurk beneath the lily leaves. No more sitting in the sun, barefeet, on the step at the back door. No more chasing milky dusty white moths among the clumping blue frill-crumpled leaves of the cabbages.
But when Skete went, not so long after, when Skete died, disappeared, she had nowhere to go because she was a dog. But she solved this problem by swimming through the pale green watery waves on the sleeping counterpane, licking and longing for love, and she also moved into the time just before sleep when I could hear her running up and down up and down the drive at the side of the house, paws racing on the golden gravel, her lead a ribbon of flittering sound on the windswept worries of my drifting mind. I would kneel up at the window and watch for her, wait for her to fling herself faithfully along the driveway between the twilight moonlight lady standard rose bushes, Lorraine Lee, Josephine Bruce, Cecile Brunner, Madame Hardy. She was not in the bedroom, people said, not in the driveway, no, people said. I knew where she was. Dashing along just out of reach, bouncing just beyond the corner of the eye, out of the line of vision, line of fire, I watched for her, if I could catch a glimpse. If I could catch a glimpse I could capture her, bring her back to me. Here Skete, come on Skete, here Skete. Good dog.
Skete was an Australian silky terrier with long straight hair, slate blue and tan and black, with piercing black black knowing loving dog-eyes, wise sad mouth, alert, inquisitive, excitable, adoring. She was the dog and I was her human, half human. My father would put me in the black metal basket on the front of his bike, Skete across the back of his neck, and we would ride off to play cricket. Bliss for me and bliss for Skete, ecstasy, exultation, the joy of being chosen and small enough to ride in the basket, on my father’s neck, the wind in our hair, gushing pleasure, billows of air flittering in the ribbons of my dress. A feeling of safety and a sense of danger, and we are going somewhere important and different and serious and glorious. Going to watch them play cricket. The Hillside Crescent Cricket Club including B.V.C Cooper and S.W.J. Wallbridge and A.Playsted (Capt.) – I don’t pretend I remembered their names – I got them from the photograph I have of the team, eleven handsome men in cricket flannels with crossed arms in a photographer’s studio with a backdrop of embossed velvet curtain and a many-paned window from Cinderella’s ballroom. Some of them could still be alive I suppose, but most of them would hitting sixes and taking catches way out there on the heavenly green of the starry velvet oval. Out for a duck – I always thought that was a lovely way of talking. I don’t quite know what to do with my father’s old cricket bat, really. It’s a Four Star, made from Superior English Willow and is split and bound with string and strips of very fine leather, almost translucent, like chicken skin. Maybe it’s rabbit? Probably pigskin. Anyhow, this is the bat that hit the ball that I saw and heard at the Hillside Crescent Club circa 1943.
So there we were, me and Skete, Skete flying through the air, me rolling over and over down the steep slope of the slippery grass at the edge of the field. I had ginger beer and anzacs in the clubhouse, men in white running, the sound of the gleaming red ball on the Superior English Willow. It sails up, up, red, will he catch it, yes, no, got it! I wonder now about some men playing cricket while other men have gone to war. I wonder about that. There must have been some player missing, don’t you think, some substitute while we waited for the spin bowler to build the Burma railway? Maybe he never came back, that bowler. He was far from my mind as I rolled over and over down the slope with Skete. Skete flying along above the waving grasses, slippery, smelling of green juice in the sunlight.
At home we ran round and round the garden together, in and out of the fruit trees, across the lawn, up the rose path, round the palm tree, down the drive, through the fernery, past the playhouse, down to the chook house, into the bomb shelter, out into the long grass under the apple tree rolling around again in the sweet blurred blue-green of the grass that reaches up to heaven.
I have my gun.
This is a hefty wooden toy my father made, called an ak-ak gun, modelled on some weapon used in military combat out there on some other parallel to the north. My gun will be protection against the attacks of monstrous enemies, Japs with enormous grinning mouths filled with the teeth of sharks, as revealed in drawings and diagrams by my sisters. Germans in smooth helmets and big boots. These are the enemies from whom we will hide in the trench, safe and sound and wise and locked and barred and armed. To the teeth. I carry the gun as I move with my dog around the terrain.
We also had our gas masks. Importantly ugly, to be worn for vague reasons of safety and wonderful excitement in the reality of imaginary warfare. Khaki, grotesque, frightening, goggle eyes and an elephant’s trunk, is that really me inside there when I look into the looking glass? I had dresses of romantic floral silk, smocked in elaborate colours and patterns by my mother, grub roses, pink and green and blue, exquisite, and knitted cardigans, and my gas mask. I long for a long lost photograph of my hand-tinted self, portrait of child in silk dress and white socks and red shoes and regulation gas mask – long for it to turn up in somebody’s cellar, attic, kitchen drawer. And they scan it and send it to me as an attachment, saying hey look at you! Such things do happen. Someone once sent a picture of me as a little bridesmaid. And like sometimes in the busy street of some old Spanish city I have turned my head, just that split second too late to see Skete jiggling along beside a warm stone wall. Because she had nowhere to go, long long ago, she is still here there and everywhere, I only have to pay attention.
Pay attention to the moments between waking and sleep when the plumes of red sorrel under the pear trees conceal all but the quivering shadow of the dog, when perfect light-green plates of the nasturtium leaves, pebbled with drops of shivering water part and Skete is perfect again in the sunlight, and the petals of calendulas orange as the sun stick to the soles of my feet. I was in charge of Skete and she was in charge of me. She had a little rainbow rubber ball and she would jump up and catch it in her mouth and I could see that her teeth were very sharp indeed, very very sharp and strong and accurate, and her little jaw is not so little after all. And she sits at my feet in the firelight on winter nights, pretending to be asleep, and the permanent and perpetual wireless is on – London, blitz, Churchill, blackout – and I roll bandages for soldiers while my mother and my sisters knit strips with their white knitting cotton, or they knit balaclavas with their khaki wool, or mittens, or socks. It is most important that the soldiers’ feet should be kept warm and dry. Should it become necessary at any time we will proceed to the bomb shelter where there are blankets and candles and sand and water and matches and pillows and tins of condensed milk and corned beef and biscuits, as well as Fowler’s jars of fruit taken from the garden and preserved. Dark luscious raspberries bleeding in their own juice behind shiny glass.
There are charts about bombs and blackouts and gas masks, how to fit. Shouldn’t Skete have her own gas mask? Nobody answers. Blitz, blackout.
The last time I ever visited the old house where Skete is buried, I stood in my bedroom in the time just after dusk and I heard her in the drive, running on the gravel, trailing her skinny lead, happy and purposeful and forever bright. She knew I was there. I suppose she also knew it was the last time, that there would be new people who might hear the little running footsteps and imagine they were the wind rustling in the creeper, the bowling and blowing of dry leaves on the pathway, the sound of nothing in the twilight.
Nothing in the twilight is a terrier who can catch a rainbow rubber ball in mid air in her teeth, or can kill a rat or a possum or a bandicoot. There was a story that long ago one of her ancestors had killed a thylacine. On a shelf in a cupboard in my great aunt’s house there was the bottom jaw of the thylacine to prove it. Nobody ever commented that the jaw in fact proved nothing, except that a thylacine had died. The story was that the dog had killed it, and although without the story the jaw was still amazing, with the story it was even better. Killed by a terrier just like Skete. Surely not. Amazing. It was a young small tiger, but still. People would look at the jaw and hold it heavy on the flat of their hand and stare at it and look at Skete and shake their head and say yes it was fantastic wasn’t it, that little dog. Somebody had fashioned a pin-cushion around the jawbone. The thylacine, they say, was that a dog, or a wolf, or a tiger, or what? A sort of wolf, maruspial wolf? Pin-cushion? History meets fantasy meets science in due course.
The lower jaw of the thylacine is dark, the colour of mahogany – why this is I don’t know – and it forms a curving hollow, rimmed with teeth, and into the hollow is set a high tight cushion, puffed up, covered in white bridal satin, stuck with pearl-handled pins and one long amber hatpin. There are dark spots on white at the end where the bottom jaw was once hinged to the skull. Where the satin meets the bone they have added a trimming of thick decorative lace, and have tied a bow, neat and finished. The tiger’s jawbone is a long long way from home, far from the wilderness, tucked away in its bridal finery in an old lady’s cabinet of curiosities where it shares a little world with a cowrie shell shiny and big, milk white spotted like a dream quoll or pardalote, milky blue around the rim, snugly housed in a hump-back tin, lined with burgundy velvet. Hold the cowrie to your ear and you will hear the sounds of the sighing sea, the woosh of the whaling ocean, the thunder of the waves, thoughts of the wandering moon. There is scrimshaw carved by sailors, images of tall ships, of mermaids, of fish and of strange birds, rippling waters and puffing winds. The nautilus is paper fragile, a whisper, and lies on a saucer, left in its natural state, wonderful enough to say, this is a nautilus shell, and people say, ah yes, a nautilus shell. It’s a nautilis shell.
But the curious marvel of the thylacine is not only that this one was killed by an ancestor of rainbow-ball Skete, but that the species has gone extinct, and extinct is a word with such a fatal ring that when you hold a piece of a thylacine in your hand, even if it has been turned into a pin-cushion, you feel the charge, the power of loss, of creation here today and gone tomorrow and never to return. Not for the thylacine the firmament of heaven, blinding flash of starry winking angels. Not for him the undulating waves of downy counterpane where dogs can play forever. The thylacine has gone in sorrow and in violence and in guilt and fantasy, and has lodged in its own special place of science and imagination and hope and an amazing bright tomorrow that I will look at shortly. Extinct animals join a special company, like a tragic ghostly zoo where they are all extinct together. The old thylacine that went in 1936, and the Florida dusky seaside sparrow, a recent one that went extinct in 1987. That’s another story about habitat, and the Kennedy Space Center, and the highway to Disney World. The Western Black Rhinoceros went in 2011. Then there is the very sad romantic history of Spix’s macaw, a blue parrot which is almost extinct. I have read statistics that give the numbers of species that go out of existence every day, but I can’t be sure how accurate they would be.
For someone who grew up on the fortieth south parallel the word ‘extinct’ has a particularly resonant ring, for the history of Indigenous Tasmanians is one of the attempts, considered by some to be successful, of white colonials to eradicate a race of native people. If the first Tasmanians are not extinct, they are diminished, interrupted. If you are interested in tragedy, there is one for you to follow.
But to return to the thylacine and its bright future. I am heading here for the edges of the cloning debate. Since the qualified failure of the cat-cloning experiment in the US I haven’t heard much about people wanting to clone their pets. But I wonder how it would be if I had, to put it crudely been able to get a more or less identical clone of Skete over and over again. If I could take you by the hand and open the back door and call, here Skete, and she came, and you could see what I see when the lights go down and she rises up in the grasslands of the old white counterpane. How would that be? That would be put different spin on things, wouldn’t it then? If the real cloned Skete could run and yodel up and down the gravel drive, what would become of the ghostly Skete, what would she do with herself? Questions, questions.
News of the thylacine, a striped wolf-like animal with a marsupial pouch, was first recorded by Europeans when the crew of Abel Tasman’s ship saw footprints resembling those of a tiger when they landed on Van Diemen’s Land in 1642. Early on the animal was called a hyena, and before long there was a bounty on its head. Naturalists became interested in the exotic animals of the world, the thylacine being one of these. The first one went off to Regent’s Park zoo in London in 1850, and I think it is nice to note that the traffic in human beings from England to Van Diemen’s Land stopped soon after that, in 1853. It’s a sad sad story, the story of the thylacine. I never saw the last one ever, the one in the Hobart zoo, but my father did, and he said it was very sad. He thought it should have been a rather noble animal, but it was lonely and abject and beaten and caged, and its fighting spirit was long since gone. He said.
I wonder what kind of a fight was put up by the one whose pin-cushion jaw lies in the cupboard with the scrimshaw and the nautilus. The image of the thylacine haunts Tasmania today, for it is found on many logos, marking the bright red garbage bins of Launceston, marking in green the Department of Tourism, on buses, postage stamps, Coats of Arms, and alcohol. It appears, as is only proper, on television, a strangely wooden replica moving through a strangely tropical forest, advertising beer. There are people who are convinced this animal lives on in secret somewhere in the Tasmanian wilderness, and they devote their lives to finding it, to proving that extinction has not, after all, taken place. Clearly it haunts the heart, dogs the imagination, inspires scientists to undertake amazing and wonderful experiments. Putting up no fight when it died out in the Hobart zoo, it now has become a tissue-revitalisation issue, probably putting up no fight against its own resurrection. For some scientists in Sydney have begun to work on the DNA from young thylacines long ago dead and pickled in alcohol. Amazing? Yes. People are so incredibly clever, the thylacine is putty in their shaping hands. Hoping to establish a breeding population and to bring back the tiger, bring back the creature whose claws the sailors saw in 1642. Turn back the hands of time, roll back the sands of time.
The place where we buried Skete was in the heart-shaped piece of earth underneath a nectarine tree, where the sun slants in beneath the branches, and a few years later, when I had become obsessed with tulips, my father gave me that plot for a garden. Skete is here, deep deep down, you won’t disturb her. She nourishes the soil. And I did not disturb her. No sign of her was ever found, not that I was really looking, for her spirit and her body and her soul and her lead flittered nearly every night up and down the golden drive, and her dear pink tongue played often in my ear as the stars came out in pinpoints across the sky. And the tulip bulbs were fat little onions in the palm of my hand, and they were covered with wonderful transparent brown paper skin. The green tips broke the soil, pushed up and out and gradually the furled green bud, soft as angel skin, shyly appeared sheathed in mysterious dusty misty green wrappings of leafy spears. Until the day when the stems were tall enough, and the buds began to split, and the cups began to open and there were the petals, the finest scarlet silk, kisses damp in the dappled light. Deep in the centres were the splashes of clear yellow, and there was a pale green-white cross on a stalk, and black black dusty stamens, like velvet, quivering. It was a miracle, or like a miracle. It was nature, really, but I held my breath and felt like part of something marvellous. I could put the bulbs into the ground, near Skete, and they would turn into Chinese silk, butterflies, real Dutch tulips right there under the nectarine tree.
The world, after all, is a soft and beautiful place, full of rivers and mountains and dreams. Voyages, adventures. We never had to use the bomb shelter to save us from foreign invasion or bombs, but when I went home recently for the last time, before handing everything including Skete over to new owners, I went in there and I found one of the books of charts giving information about bombs and gas masks and so on. I can tell you that a General Purpose Bomb gives an explosion which bursts the case of the bomb into fragments or splinters which are shot out in all directions at a high velocity. Unimpeded splinters may travel at a distance of 600 to 1,200 yards. Debris may also be projected violently from the surface struck.
The maps of the world had disappeared long ago. Just as well. They would have made no sense.
(This memoir was fnirst published in Acts of Dogedited by Debra Adelaide)