MAYTIME FAIR

images-1.jpeg

“The medals mother was wearing when she died”

My wife has died. Six months ago it was, and I still say it like that – my wife has died. As if it happened a few minutes ago or yesterday. It seems to make the loneliness easier to bear. And letters still come for her. I wonder sometimes how long it takes for death and absence to filter through to distant friends and the bank and the Reader’s Digest. I went to the bank the other day and said to the little girl behind the glass in a loud and desperate voice, ‘My wife has died and you must stop sending letters to her about anything whatsoever. Please understand,’ I said, ‘my wife will not borrow money from you. She will not be requiring a Visa card.’ The girl was very nice and got the manager and he apologised and all the other customers in the queues looked sorry but they looked away. Then of course the next day the bank sent Marjory a letter about interest rates. I tore it up.

I tore up the letter and threw it in the fire and it curled and went brown and wouldn’t seem to burn. Not like the things from Reader’s Digestthat flare up and spurt out sudden flames of green and blue and purple. I burned a lot of Marjory’s things in the garden incinerator. Things I couldn’t bring myself to sort or think about. Like Christmas cards and letters and the half-finished tapestry of the Laughing Cavalier. How could you, Dad, the girls said when I told them. The Laughing Cavalier, they said, very shocked. I never liked the cavalier myself, and half of him seemed to me to be of no use to anyone. But Anne said she would have finished it and turned it into a shopping bag. Then Elizabeth started arguing and said it should have been framed and hung in the hall just as it was. I must say I was glad I’d already burnt the thing. Susan had the sense not to say anything. So nobody knew which side she was on. She’s like that.

No nonsense about Susan. Never has been. It’s lucky she lives the closest so that it was natural for her to help me with Marjory’s things, the clothes. Susan just came round every day for a week or so and folded things up into boxes and then she got St Vincent de Paul to come. ‘I’ll put the shoes in the garbage,’ Susan said, and I was scarcely listening. But suddenly I had a memory of Marjory years ago at a party in her red satin dress and the red shoes we bought in Venice. I went rushing into the bedroom where Susan had what looked like dozens of pairs of old shoes on the bed. They were all sad and brown and grey and black. One white pair and a few pairs of coloured slippers, pastel. ‘The red ones,’ I said, ‘what have you done with your mother’s red shoes.’ They were already in the rubbish tin mixed up with some celery. I fished them out and Susan looked at me strangely and said nothing. I said the shoes reminded me of very happy times – Venice and the party, and so on – I said. Susan said where would I put them and she looked down at my feet. I had a clear understanding that she wondered in the moment if I was going to dress up in her mother’s things. Nothing further from my mind, and my feet are size eleven.

I keep the shoes on the floor of the wardrobe alongside my own shoes. I fancy the ghost of Marjory dances in and out of the wardrobe. I’m sorry I didn’t keep a dress of two hanging there. I even looked in the doorway of St Vincent de Paul one day, half thinking I’d go in and buy one of Marjory’s dresses, but I couldn’t stand the smell of the place.

And I came away from there knowing that the only thing I really wanted was the shoes. She loved them so. For some reason I can not explain, I could not bear to keep Marjory’s holy medals. I believed they should have been buried with her, but the sister at the hospital put them in a little box and gave them to Susan. ‘Your mother’s medal, Susan,’ she said, and pressed the box into Susan’s hand. ‘She was wearing them when she died.’ So Susan took them home and in her very sensible and literal way she wrote in pencil on the lid of the box, ‘The medals Mother was wearing when she died.’ It was the Johnson & Johnson box that had contained six thin oval bunion plasters. And all Marjory’s dear medals – Perpetual Succour, Philomena, Miraculous, Scapular, Mater Dolorosa, Little Flower – plus two Pius Xs, one attached to a crucifix. All her medals in the thin black drawer that slid in and out. Susan wrote on the lid and came round and gave the box to me. But I said, ‘You have them, Susan. Or share them up with your sisters.’ Susan said nothing and she took the box away. I can’t say how much that box offended me. And Susan’s label – ‘The medals Mother was wearing when she died’. And the date.

She died on the eighth of November and soon it will be May. I wish the bank and theReader’s Digestand the girls would leave me to my thoughts. But Elizabeth and Anne have both rung me today to tell me in their differing ways that Susan has done something unforgivable. Nothing, I said, is unforgivable. This is, they said. But what has she done, I asked, what has she really done. ‘She has sent Mother’s lace tablecloths and pillow shams and handkerchief sachets to the second-hand stall at the Maytime Fair.’ I said if they had wanted those things they should have taken them. They didn’t exactly want them, they said, but they should not have gone onto the second-hand stall at the convent. Actually, Elizabeth said, it’s the antique stall. Dealers come with magnifying glasses and snap things up and take them off and sell them for a fortune. I said they should be happy with the pieces of fine jewellery their mother left to them. And the china and crystal. I look around as I speak and think the house is almost empty. The china cabinet used to be so crowded with daffodil-pattern Royal Doulton.

I stop listening to the girls. I close my ears and think of Marjory’s bright red shoes waiting for her in the wardrobe. I go deaf. I go stupid. (He is so deaf, they say. So stupid. Susan gets away with anything.)

I learn to cook and weed the borders. Old world pastel pansies that Marjory loved so much. I walk the dog and look up at the sky and think it’s going to rain. Marjory’s floral bookmark flutters from the pages of the last book she was reading. Ivanhoe. She liked to read. Six months and it seems to be a lifetime and I miss her so. I have her shoes. And what I do not tell Anne and Elizabeth is this: I think that with the tablecloths and pillow shams that Susan sent to the Maytime Fair, there would have been some other things. I think Susan sent the medals. Someone, I believe, will buy the bunion-plaster box of medals for a fortune or a song. And the strange thing is – it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care.

Fair Game – a Tasmanian Memoir – extract

fairgame.jpg

The beginnings of this story I want to tell you go back long ago, to May, 1996.

I was living in Melbourne, and had given a workshop on writing, in Canberra, at the National Library of Australia. I had been staying with the Halligan family, Marion being a close friend. When I returned home I received a postcard from her daughter Lucy, and it was this card from the National Library that inspired me to set off on a project that has ended up here, at my desk in Castlemaine, Victoria, with the petals of the plum blossom twisting in the spider web that hangs from the golden ash. With the blackbirds.

Lucy’s card is one of at least eighty cards that she sent me over the years, each card bearing a lively, ebullient message, often in black ink, on the back. This collection of cards is for me a treasured memorial to Lucy who died from the complications of a life-long heart condition in 2004. The pictures on the cards, and the messages, reveal something of Lucy’s charm and wit, and her loving nature.

The card in question is a print of an entrancing coloured lithograph that was produced in London in 1832. The title of the picture is ‘E-migration or a flight of fair game, 1832’, and it was created by Alfred Ducote. Printed in black ink from one stone, hand-coloured. In 1975 the National Library of Australia bought the lithograph from the Dr Clifford Craig Collection. So just now I looked for information on Dr Clifford Craig, and discovered that while I lived in Launceston for the first 23 years of my life, with my playhouse and the pear tree, Dr Craig was living there, nearby, with his family and his collection of antiques which included the lithograph. Imagine. If I had only met Dr Craig, if I had only seen some of the objects in his collection of antiques, I could have contemplated this image long, long before 1996. But I confess that today was the first I had heard of Dr Craig.

I will get to a description of the picture in due course, but right now I am off on an investigation of Dr Craig. To summarise – he was born in Melbourne in 1896 and died in Launceston in 1986 (I rather like those twisty dates). He became surgeon superintendent at the Launceston General Hospital, after the resolution of an eight year dispute between the Tasmanian State Government and the local branch of the British Medical Association who had banned their own members from working in Tasmanian hospitals. Heavens – that’s all I know about the dispute, but it sounds interesting. I am getting my information from the internet, and I daresay I could dash off on an investigation into the matter, but I feel I must get on with what I set out to do. In 1963 Clifford wrote a book on the history of the Launceston General Hospital, but I’m not tempted to read that. There’s a portrait of him in the Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, but I don’t recall having seen it. Next time I go there I will look for it. The most important thing about him, to me, is that in his collection of antiques he had the picture of the butterflies.

Ah, the picture. A flock of softly multi-coloured butterflies hovers across the whole frame. They diminish in size from left to right, as they recede into the distance, flying away from the viewer. They don’t have the bodies of insects – they are all beautiful women with elaborate hairstyles, graceful arms and tiny feet. Beneath them lies the sea on which there is a sailing ship, and a small rowboat. The sun in the sky seems to be rising. In the left bottom corner of the frame is a small sketch of a cliff on the top of which are some pale biscuit-coloured Georgian buildings in England. Everything is pale, etiolated, except for the vivid butterflies. Between the buildings and the edge of the cliff, stand four tiny women wearing long blue dresses, white caps, and aprons. They seem agitated, and two are wielding brooms. There are two speech bubbles. What are they saying? ‘I’d be a butterfly’ and ‘Varmints’. Then in the opposite corner, where the ship is coming in, stands a group of little men in grey, one with a wooden leg. Castellations and soldiers with guns in the distance. On a rock in the foreground, is a fellow with a tall butterfly net, reaching up and out. In his speech bubble it says: ‘I spies mine.’ In the very far right of the foreground stands a plump priest in his white surplice and dark stole. ‘I sees a prime’un,’ says one of the men, and adds: ‘Get ready clargyman.’ And etched into the dusty brown hill behind the group are the words: ‘Van Diemen’s Land.’

So what is going on?

This lithograph is a satirical (yet strangely poignant and lyrical) record of the arrival in Van Diemen’s Land in 1832 of the Princess Royal, the first ship to bring non-convict women from England to be the wives and servants of the men in the colony. There were two hundred  women on board. There were also nine children who have never been identified by name. Nine children who have disappeared from history.

This ship with its cargo is uppermost in my thoughts right now, but I do need to return to Dr Craig for a moment, before flying on with the Princess Royalbutterfly girls.

As I read about Clifford Craig online, I had a feeling I knew one of his sons when I was at university in Hobart. I sent an email to an old friend, Michael FitzGerald, and he said he had been at school with the Craig boys. We can’t work out what has become of them since. Perhaps they have a presence, a trace, online, but I can’t locate it. However Michael recalled the fine manners of the elder one who had been Head Boy at the Launceston Church Grammar School. A group of boys, including Michael and the boy Craig, were invited to sing at Matins in the church of St Mary the Virgin in a tiny town called Hagley, outside Launceston. After the service the ladies of the parish provided a lavish morning tea. Now I must quote (with permission) from Michael’s email: ‘The choir members ignored the parishioners, rushed forward and fell on the food which they devoured before everyone’s startled eyes.’ The Head Boy, master Craig, however, had the grace and presence of mind to converse politely with the clergyman and the congregation. The others were in due course castigated by the Headmaster, Mr H. Vernon Jones. I realise I don’t need to name everyone in every narrative, but sometimes the names themselves are irresistible in their music and their weight. And it seems that not only did Dr Craig have possession of one of my favourite pictures, but he also had at least one well-mannered son, probably two.

Going back to Virginia Woolf’s Between the Actsfor just a moment, there is a comment about a Mrs Swithin being awakened in the morning by birds ‘attacking the dawn like so many choirboys attacking an iced cake’. Lovely!

Then there’s Mr H. Vernon Jones – I can’t let his name just slip by without a peep into his history. He had a fascinating sister. Several sisters, one fascinating. My two sources for information here are about as far apart as two publications could be. One is a small booklet called Keeping Up With the Jonesesby June Gee. It’s a family history of the Tasmanian Jones family. There is no publication date, but I see it cost me $6.95, so it must be quite old. In one photograph there is the date 1979 on a plaque. It was published by Mary Fisher Bookshop in Launceston who have published a number of invaluable little books on Tasmanian topics, some others of which are in my collection. The National Library was unable to pinpoint the date of publication for me. The Jones book tells a sweet and sweeping story, illustrated by intriguing black and white photographs. Maddeningly it has no page numbers – these need to be supplied by the reader. And the narrative offers tantalizing glimpses of other stories not told, such as the story of Captain Paterson who took his family on a cruise of the South Sea Islands. ‘Fijians stole his youngest son, and he was not recovered for sixteen years.’ What? But that’s all you get. More importantly, the stories that are not told – not even hinted at – are the stories of the Jones ancestors who came to Van Diemen’s Land as convicts. This information is in my second source, Bad Faithby Carmen Callil. It is possible, even probable, that the Jones family of today (2014) is proud of its convict past; but such pride is a fairly recent development in Tasmania where even official records of the dark past were deliberately destroyed, and where people worked on acquiring a form of gentility and respectability that denied many of the discomforting truths of the past.

On the Jones family tree as supplied by Carmen Callil, there are five convicts. Imagine, five! (A statistic from 1836 says that at that time seventy-five percent of the population were convicts or ex-convicts or the descendants of convicts. So you can see, quite a lot of families were mixed up in crime.) The Joneses of today are probably delighted to know of their ancestry. All that is far enough away to have become romantic. But the nine children of Henry (1864 – 1929) and Alexandrina (1871 – 1958), if indeed they had any knowledge of their transported ancestors, were respected members of Tasmanian society (a farmer, two dentists, a doctor, a headmaster) and were not about to reveal that knowledge. I am a fourth generation Tasmanian, and as far as I know there are no convicts on my family tree, but I can’t be sure. Perhaps there are one or two.

Bad Faithis the story of a French Nazi collaborator, Louis Darquier de Pellepoix (1897 – 1980) who was married to Muriel Jones (1893 – 1970), one of the sisters of H.Vernon Jones, the headmaster whose students gobbled up the goodies after Matins without a word to the ladies who had provided the repast.

Louis Darquier de Pellepoix was in fact the Commissioner for Jewish Affairs (1942 – 44) during the Vichy government, controlling a staff of over a thousand, and was responsible for sending nearly 13,000 Jews to death camps. He used the persecution of Jews to make a fortune from corruption, despoliation, looting and bribery. He was a successful conman, able to spin fantasies about himself on a grand scale in order to win the trust of others. His wife Muriel Jones was also most ready to spin great fantasies about herself. She was a skilled pianist and actor, an alcoholic, and by 1916, when she was twenty-three, she had left Tasmania for the mainland, where she married another theatrical performer, Roy Workman. They went to England. How she met Louis remains a mystery. She, who was falsely known at the time as Lady Workman-Macnaughton, married Louis, he being falsely known as Baron de Pellepoix, in 1928. As the Baron and the Baroness, after the wedding, they made a brief visit to Tasmania where they both seem to have delighted the family with their glamour. By the end of 1929 they were in New York, and the world was sliding into the great Depression. Myrtle never saw Tasmania again. She is described thus in Keeping Up with the Jonses: ‘a most accomplished musician. She married Baron Darquier de Pellepoise (sic) and lived chiefly in Paris and Madrid.’ Otherwise she is simply a name among so many in that little book.

Having realized that she was the sister of the man who reprimanded the greedy choirboys at the parish afternoon tea in Hagley, I couldn’t resist following, if ever so slightly, her history, not imagining it would take me to the wartime extermination of French Jews.

Now down to earth and back to Hagley.

Many a detail in text these days comes from the unreliable treasure trove of the internet, but it so happens that I am familiar with the church of St Mary the Virgin in Hagley, and in my library there’s a booklet about it. I confess to collecting such things, the booklet on the Joneses being part of the collection. When I went to look for the Hagley one just now I was in danger of becoming side-tracked into churches almost anywhere else – Western Australia, Alsace, Salisbury, Granada, or into such treasures as Gertrude Bugler’s Personal Recollections of Thomas Hardy, or, believe it or not, The Tasmanian Exercises in Arithmetic,a faded orange booklet, next to and resembling, FrenchSentence Tables for Schools.

The foundation stone at Hagley was laid by Sir Richard Dry (another name I treasure) in 1861. Sir Richard was born in Launceston, Tasmania in 1815. His father had been a political prisoner sent to Van Diemen’s Land in 1804 for his part in an Irish rebellion. The father was granted his freedom in 1818. Richard was one of the leaders in the Anti-Transportation League which worked to stop the transport of convicted British criminals to the island. In 1858 he was knighted by Queen Victoria, and in 1866 he became the first Tasmanian-born Premier of the state. He lived on the Quamby estate near Hagley, a property of 30,000 acres developed by his father, and he financed the building of the church. The tower and spire are dedicated to Lady Dry, who, I should say, established the National Trust in Tasmania.

You don’t need a lot of history of St Mary’s here, yet, but I can record memories of turning off the main road at Hagley and driving up a slight hill, along a narrow roadway lined with hawthorns and English trees, with bushes clipped into shapes like big buns and cakes, towards the narrow bluestone church with its tower and slender spire. You would have to call it graceful. I imagine daffodils – I don’t think I ever saw daffodils there, but my imagination is coloured by, perhaps, BBC dramas where to have a romantic church with a spire is to have a scattering of spring bulbs.

The Hagley booklet fascinates me, but I know I must resist the temptation to quote from it in detail – mind you, it’s packed with lovely glimpses of the past that you won’t find on the internet. The author of the booklet is E. G. Scott. (I once briefly dated a Scott from Hagley – possibly related to E.G. I like to think it’s a small world.) The bluestone for the building was quarried nearby, the freestone came from Kangaroo Point in the south of the island. How did they get the freestone from Kangaroo Point to Hagley in the 1860s? In carts drawn by draught horses I suppose, along raggedy roads. And ah-ha – Sir Richard’s head gardener designed the grounds – remember the shrubs like cakes – but the gardener remains nameless in the text. When Sir Richard Dry died in Hobart in 1869, a state funeral was sent from Hobart to Hagley, a distance of 210 kilometres. Pause to imagine. I had better quote from E.G. Scott. ‘For four days the procession, headed by a horse-drawn hearse, traversed the long rough road from the capital in the south, stopping on the third night in Launceston where the body was laid in state at Holy Trinity Church.’ The next day the procession travelled to Hagley, to St Mary the Virgin, where the body was buried in the presence of the Governor of Tasmania. Gosh.

I love this booklet about the Hagley church. One of its charms is the fact that everybody generally has two initials and a surname and a place of origin. Oh, and a title – they are all Mr, Mrs, unless they are Miss, in which case they get a first name. Miss Fanny Viney. There is also a Miss Home of Launceston, no Christian name. Nice surname. Such precise placing of the cast.

One time I went into the churchyard at Hagley. Very ancient plots in one corner, plots surrounded by rusty, broken iron work. But over in a newer section I found the grave of a child. Amy-Lee Josephine Stewart – her surname in very large block capitals. She died in 1973 when she was nearly two. The information was on a metal plaque attached to an upright stone. The grave was decorated with china figurines of animals – small teddy bears, cloth rabbits, and about a dozen expensive china replicas of characters from Beatrix Potter. None was stuck to the marble of the grave; it was possible to pick them up. But it was clear that they had not been disturbed for a long time. I marvelled at the fact that it was possible to leave these things on a grave under an oak tree, and trust that they would be there next week. Amy-Lee had been dead for about twenty years when I visited the grave. What, no vandals? What are graveyards coming to? I suppose you feel the approach of doom – yes – the next time I went there, a few years later, happily seeking out Jemima Puddleduck and friends, the grave was desolate, untended, abandoned, forlorn. I know I took photos on both visits, but the only ones I can find in my inadequate filing system are the ones from the second visit. I had for some reason forgotten that a good third of the plaque – greenish, probably copper – is taken up with a shallow sculpting of Little Bo Peep and her dancing (unlost) sheep. The stone is laced with florets of greeny grey lichen, the grave itself a jumble of dead leaves and, I think, straw. In a tired black plastic flowerpot lounges an eyeless ragged cloth rabbit, head tilted back, front paws crossed on his chest, one ear dangling. Beside his flowerpot, a few everlasting daisies, pink, white, yellow. Three Beatrix Potter figurines, faded and chipped, remain. Perhaps the most offensive object is an empty glass coffee jar, part filled with dirty water. None of this quite suggests vandals – just the passage of time in the churchyard, the passage of time. In small print on the headstone: ‘That which is you dwells above the mountain and roves with the wind.’ So here you have a coming together of Kahlil Gibran, Beatrix Potter and Little Bo Peep. It is difficult to analyse, yet it, among the straw and leaves and lichen, speaks of the depth and pain of grief with a peculiar eloquence.

With my true and deeper focus on the butterflies flying to Van Diemen’s Land, I find that the headstone image of Bo Peep and her flock chimes ever so faintly with the lithograph.

I have wandered, roving perhaps with the wind, off course from my contemplation of the butterfly women of 1832, they roving also with the wind. I know that frequently in this narrative I will waver, will veer off course, but I know also that I do this in the service of the narrative itself. Just a warning.

 

 

The Cinnamon Walls of the Incarnation Convent

From THE WHITE GARDEN (1995)

When I saw that Robin Cadwallader had recently published a novel titled ‘The Book of Colours’, I went back to my novel ‘The White Garden’ in which there is a long section called ‘The Book of Colours’. This one of mine is narrated by St Teresa of Avila. She is reflecting on moments in her life, taking as her prompt her memories of different colours.

Here is her piece on ‘The Cinnamon Walls of the Incarnation Convent’:

“I crossed the humped bridge over the little stream, and soon I saw the elms, their bare branches black amongst the snow, etched against the cinnamon walls of the Incarnation. I paused, small, and I drew in my breath. The crisp air entered my throat and lungs, and I felt an intense pain. Summoning all my resolve, I crossed the vestibule where the floor was cobbled and the walls where as white as the fallen snow. A great tangle of bell ropes hung from the beams of the roof. I pulled on a rope and the bell rang, and I was admitted through the huge studded door – after much clinking of keys and scraping of bolts.”

THE RED RIDING HOOD VIRUS

THE RED RIDING HOOD VIRUS

 

A short feminist memoir, first published in my collection The Common Rat – 1993

redriding.jpg

Emily is five. She is showing me around the garden.

‘Look. The tiger lily is going to pop.’ Emily knows the names and the habits of all the flowers. We walk from the garden to the café down the street. We sit outside the café in the sun – Emily, her mother, her two aunts and me.

The adults are drinking cappuccino; Emily has hot chocolate. We all admire Emily’s dress – the green and white gingham dress she will wear when she starts school next week. We admire her green plastic sandals that resemble jelly. She scoops froth from her drink with a spoon, eats each spoonful elegantly. She looks up into the faces of the women around the table. She listens, silent and alert.

What does she hear. She hears that we are going to the lace and linen shop to look at a tablecloth. One of the aunts wants our opinion on the tablecloth. It is cream damask, but is it the right shade of cream. Her table (‘I know the table you mean,’ Emily’s mother says) is round with two leaves. You have to make certain the cloth is not joined down the middle. This is the problem with round tablecloths. Emily eats a sliver of carrot cake and listens. (A table with leaves, a cloth with a join down the middle, cream damask, the right shade of cream.)

We finish our coffee and cross the road to the lace shop. Walking into the shop is like walking into a sweet white cloud. White linen cushions embroidered in white silk, piles of white doylies edged with white lace, white lawn handkerchiefs, white satin purses for containing underwear and stockings. I pick up a doyley. Emily is beside me.

‘We have plenty of those at home,’ Emily says. ‘Nanna likes to put them underneath vases. And these,’ she says, pointing to crochet jug-covers edged with heavy beads, ‘these are for covering jugs – or anything.’

The cream damask tablecloth (the colour is not quite right) is being unfolded, and – oh no – there is a join running down the middle like a scar. We stand round in a circle holding the cloth, like firemen with a blanket, staring down at the impediment. We murmur and say it won’t do. A cloth must be a smooth uninterrupted expanse of damask.

Emily looks and listens. She moves quietly round the lace shop and she hovers beside a display of pale green dillybags decorated with lace images of butterflies. She has coveted one of these bags for months. And today is the day. Emily gets her dillybag, wrapped in white tissue paper. The aunt’s search for the round tablecloth must continue elsewhere. As we leave the shop we all stop to gaze at a baby’s dress in a glass case by the door. The dress is white silk, intricately smocked. One of the women says, ‘Imagine what a real baby would do to it.’ We imagine and laugh and move from the soft white fantasy world of the shop back into the street. It is Saturday morning and people are buying newspapers, vegetables, flowers, coffee beans, cakes.

I imagine that Emily’s mother and aunts felt close to Emily in the garden, at the café, in the lace shop – as I did. Emily’s experience was similar to mine at her age, and I expect it was similar to theirs. As a child I was part of a circle of sisters, cousins, aunts, and I listened and learned the intricate civilising details of girl. The importance of linen and lace and smoothness and perfection, cleanliness and decoration.

Emily will go to school next week and learn to read and write and count and tell the time and sing and draw and play with other children. She will take with her her new green dillybag and a head full of details of what it means to be a girl about to go to school for the first time in suburban Melbourne in 1992. Emily’s teacher will read stories to the children. Two of those stories will be Cinderellaand Little Red Riding Hood. Emily, and everyone else in the class, already knows these stories inside out. She will delight in the familiarity and repetition of the characters, language and turn of event. And these are stories aboutgirls, about how girls are, or should be or wish to be. Girls are beautiful to look at. Virtuous girls rise from rags to riches because of their beauty and their virtue. Riches will be provided by a man. There must be magic intervention. Girls who deviate from the straight and narrow path may be raped and devoured; they may be rescued and given another chance. The amount of sexual detail, sometimes obvious, sometimes veiled, in these stories makes them deliciously attractive to small children who half know the truth and long to understand and see more. The girl in the red cloak in bed with the wolf; the prince with the girl’s shoe, looking for her foot.

These stories lie deep within my culture, Emily’s culture, and their meanings have become inseparable from the story a girl tells herself about herself. There is a bit of Cinderella and a bit of Red Riding Hood in me, and, I believe, in Emily and the girls in her class at school. Boys also hear the stories, but I imagine they do not identify strongly with any character because the girl-ness of the girl in the story is what the story is. With the exception of the wolf and the ugly sisters, the other characters in these stories are undramatic and unengaging in their own right, and are placed only to serve the central theme of girl. The prince in Cinderellamust be the most uninteresting person in literature. Nobody in these stories has a name as we know a name. The names of Cinderella and Red Riding Hood appearto be the names. (A rough translation of the two titles is ‘Dirty Girl’ and ‘Little Sexpot’, but people don’t translate them.) These names are really only descriptions of the states of being, and these descriptions go early and deep into the imaginations of girl-children such as me and Emily. These descriptions are a sort of congenital virus – Red Riding Hood syndrome, or virus – carried by the female line.

A question to put to these stories that sink into young female imaginations is: do girls have to wait to be discovered and rescued? The answer given by the stories is: yes, they do. But it is obvious that they do not, in life, have to wait. Indeed they must not wait. Girls must act on their own behalf. I am sure that Emily’s teachers will urge and instruct her to think for herself and to act for herself. Generally my teachers did not do this. Emily will carry the viruses of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, but the viruses must be getting weaker. Emily will be miles ahead of where I was at her age. There are women prime ministers, airline pilots, surgeons, judges. Even as Emily goes off to school, eleven women fight for ordination of the Anglican Church in Australia. Such a thing was unheard of, unthought, when I was five. Emily’s mother earns her own living, and so do Emily’s aunts. Emily takes it for granted that she will do this too. When I left school and went to university there was an underlying assumption that my friends and I were filling in time until we would be rescued from the wicked world by marriage. Our mothers, who had not had the chance to go to university, were proud of us but also frightened for us. If I say that my mother died from the Red Riding Hood virus, I am not actually being funny. I mean that she was an intelligent creative woman who never expressed her creative self and who died stifled by her own frustrations. Not acting on her own behalf, waiting to be rescued and answered for, she languished and died. My family will probably find that statement offensive and inaccurate.

A comment by Charles Dickens about his childhood response to Red Riding Hood reveals much of the power and meaning of the myth. Dickens said Red Riding Hood was his first love. If only he could have married her he ‘should have known perfect bliss’. He deplored ‘the cruelty and treachery of that dissembling wolf who ate her grandmother without making any impression on his appetite, and then ate her, after making that ferocious joke about his teeth’. And I had a bad case of the virus myself. Charles Dickens would ask me to marry him and I would accept and disappear. (I read The Feminine Mystique andThe Female Eunuch, and The Cinderella Complex andKiss Sleeping Beauty Goodbyeand a few other things, and got, I believe, a bit better.)

It is okay these days for girls to climb trees. Emily climbs. But when I was five the boys climbed trees and the girls did not. Real Girls Don’t Climb Trees. I realise now that girls were not supposed to get a taste for the view from up there. (And what if there were boys lying in the grass looking up your dress. Ah yes, what if.)

We had a garden full of fruit trees and luckily nobody stopped me from spending time in the trees at home looking out across the hills to the mountains, looking down through the leaves at the ground. We didn’t have boys in the grass. But I was not supposed to climb random trees outside out own back yard. These were trees I might have fallen out of – been killed, injured for life. People might rescue cats from trees; they would not rescue girls. Rescue for girls meant rescue from the wayside, the fireside, the shelf. Rescue meant marriage to the prince for girls suffering from the Cinderella virus. And although there was a strong strain in popular literature and entertainment telling girls that marriage took them out of the frying pan into the fire, the overwhelming (I choose this word most carefully) drive was towards the altar. (Altar:a raised structure on which to place or sacrifice offerings to a deity.)

I recall my own symptoms of the Cinderella virus. One of these symptoms was the perfecting of a particular kind of drawing of a princess in a ball gown. This princess could sprout wings and become a fairy or an angel, but in her pure form she was Cinderella at the ball. I drew her on the covers of special books – my music book, my diary. I enjoyed being able to reproduce this creature. I never saw a human being that looked like that – she was the ideal and I had her at the command of my pencil. I can see now that she was an addiction. And I collected a version of her as an embroidered image. On handkerchiefs and tray cloths this woman (lady?) appeared. She wore a crinoline and a bonnet and carried a parasol. In my drawings she had a ‘pretty face’; in the embroideries she had no face. I still have my collection of these embroideries and I take them out and place them on the table and I see the ladies floating down the garden paths with their parasols, their empty bonnets nodding sweetly on their frilly shoulders, and I sense some of the feeling we have in nightmare.

I was Emily’s age when I lusted after a particular handkerchief embroidered with one of these ladies. My mother gave me the handkerchief for my birthday and I took it to school because I adored it and could not be parted from it. I showed it to the teacher and she admired it. Then we spent a long time standing in lines singing. I put no effort at all into the singing because I was eatingthe handkerchief. I was in a trance. (You suck the cloth into points and hook your eye teeth into a stitch of the embroidery. Then you use your teeth as a saw, pulling hard at the cloth with your fist. It is a slow process but a satisfying one.) The teacher yelled at me in alarm when she saw what I had done. I don’t remember what happened at home.

I learned to read and write and count and so on, as Emily will do. It didn’t take long, really. But it took a very long time to unlearn the myth of personal powerlessness taught by Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood and the faceless lady in the bonnet.

When Emily had her green dillybag, and her aunt did not have her damask tablecloth, we returned to the house. The petals of the tiger lily had curled right back to reveal the long dusty stamens.

‘Look,’ Emily said in passing. ‘I said it was going to pop.’

Yes, Emily. Keep your eyes open.

 

EXTINCTION OF SPECIES SPIX’S MACAW, A LOVE LETTER TO LOLA

flat,800x800,070,f.jpg

(Published in Australian Short Stories – No 66 – edited by Bruce Pascoe&Lyn Harwood)

Melância Creek, Bahia, Brazil

Christmas Eve 2000

Lola, My Lovely,

Forgive me for writing this letter on the reverse of a fragment of the Basurto dinner party invitation. Alas, this is all I have to hand. I know you will understand, my darling. Here in the backlands of the disappearing green fringes of the caraiba forests, paper is scarce. I write with bright pink juice from the cadaver of a goat, knowing the colour will please you. My instrument is a spine from a fat old cactus. Today, in memory of you, I have feasted well on the seeds and juices of your favourite faveleira.  My thoughts have been filled, as they forever are, with pictures and sounds of you, my dearest Lola, my childhood sweetheart, my own.

My rational mind tells me that you have gone, have gone; yet in my heart of heart I hold you still, beloved, and I know that you will hear my lovesong as I write to you, you in your resting place in the great beyond.

I recall the joyful days when, together as one, we steered our course, our long blue tails flexed against the air, through the tip tops of the caraiba. I recall how we would come to rest, almost floating into the ancient family home. There in the nest chamber you tended our three rare and precious unhatched chicklings. Deep inside the hollow of our tree.

Then there flashes upon me the memory of the dark edge of doom. In the eerie light before the dawn, the drone of the vehicle. The trappers. We huddle together. The trappers whisper as they scratch and scrape at the walls of our house. The gloved hand – then the arm enters, feeling for you, for me, for the eggs. Like fine thin glass the pure white shells are shattered. The yolks, blood-streaked, flow and drip into the bottom of the nest. You clamber up, heading for the exit, the circle of faint light as the radiance of the pre-dawn leads you on toward freedom. I follow. You spread your darling wings. You enter the net that awaits you.

In the horror of panic, with my heart pounding, there was nought for me to do but struggle past. Forgive me, forgive me, my own, for I could not save you, although I saved myself. I flew in blind desperation into the trees, away.

All this happened exactly thirteen years ago, on Christmas Eve, 1987, my blue bird of eternal happiness and sorrow. I write this letter to tell you of my love for you, and also to set down the sad and complicated story of our lives. As daylight came and you lay in your dreadful cage in terror, a cheerful and curious stranger approached the trappers on foot. They showed him their prize, my lovely, my Lola, and with his Polaroid camera he took a picture. There it was, gradually forming on the paper, an image – pale grey head, great black beak, sharp yellow eyes, brilliant turquoise dress feathers, and your long, long blue tail – it was you. The last wild girl ever, captured and sold into the slavery of the zoos. It was three years before the scientists, seeking our kind in the wild, saw this picture and realized they were looking at you, the last, my last, wild girl. They played their tape recordings of our call, played our music to your Polaroid, my love.

I was alone in the forest. I searched for you, I flew on and on and I sought you, I sought you down the nights and down the days, down the years and years in baking sunshine and when rain fell upon the earth. I could never have imagined such loneliness, such sorrow, such despair. You were the last wild girl, I the last wild boy.

Those scientists who came to the caraiba forest in 1990, they sighted me, the lone bird, in the early daylight, and they gazed at me through their binoculars, and they filmed me with their video cameras. I called for you, and they recorded my sad call. Kraa, kraa, kraa. Should they capture me, they wondered? Should they? It took them two more years to decide that they would leave me in the wild. But they had interesting plans. A miracle was about to occur.

After my seven sorrowful years of solitude, of being apart from you, my rarest, my most beautiful, my most coveted Lola, in 1995, suddenly, among the dappled light and shade of the waxy caraiba leaves, you were there. Not the dancing hallucination of my dreams, but the long lost shimmering, gleaming turquoise princess of my days. They had released you, given you back to me.

Unable to believe what had occurred, we flew in an ecstatic and bewildered trance, feasting not only on the faveleira trees, but also on delicious pinhão and juicy joazeiro. The short three months we were together remain the strangest, the brightest, and ultimately the saddest months of my life. This time you were not stolen, my lovely Lola. You flew, my dearest, by accident into the invisible new electric power lines, and were killed. I can scarcely believe the bitter cruelty of fate. I mourn for you for all eternity.

I must confess to you, my own, that my lasting faithfulness to you has, over the years, been spoiled yet not dimmed. For in my loneliness I have sometimes had the companionship of our cousin, Linda, the little green maracana. I knew her slightly during my seven years of isolation, and yes she sometimes joined us on our journeys in 1995. Forgive me. Perhaps you do not wish to know the rest of the story. We flew together, Linda and I, in the daylight, and usually I took her back to her own family at night. I slept alone on the top of a prickly cactus. And I defended our old home from the many others who wished to colonise it. In 1996, the year after I saw you, my lovely, for the last time, Linda and I moved in, and there were three eggs, but even they were stolen. In 1999 the scientists brought for us some eggs from my cousins in a zoo. With great joy we hatched them, and they flew with us. I do not know where those children are now. Naturally, I fear for them, knowing what I know. Linda and I have now parted company.

It is thirteen years, or five thousand days and nights since first you were stolen away from me, only to return for those three brief months of joyful life. On this Christmas Eve, the first of the new century, I am secretly at large, undetected by the scientists and the trappers. I fly on in lonely longing, writing this letter to you on the sad anniversary of the time when first I lost you.

I shall but love thee better after death,

Your ever devoted

Spix

Note: This story was inspired by my reading of

Spix’s Macaw – The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird by Tony Juniper, Fourth Estate 2003

 

JEREMY – a little flash fiction

IMG_4637.jpg

‘You’re not angry then?’

‘Oh no, Jeremy, I’m not angry. We never really had a future, did we.’

Her voice was almost steady, the empty martini glass quite still in her hand.

‘Thank God for that.’

The glass she held was, oddly enough, the one with the crack in it.

He introduced her to Rachel, who smiled a little nervously.

Her teeth were distinctly crooked. Didn’t everybody have orthodontistry these days?

‘Hi Rachel.’

‘Oh hello Sarah-Jane. I’ve been longing to meet you.’

‘Really?’

Jeremy was staring out the window at the crowd down at the pool.

Sarah-Jane, smiling quizzically, found herself saying:

‘Oh, but whatever happened to your teeth?’

‘What?’

And as she said again ‘your teeth’, Sarah-Jane felt her hand curl slowly across the top of the glass. The thing cracked and splintered, shards of glass digging swiftly into Sarah-Jane’s palm, blood running along her arm, dripping down her soft apricot dress and disappearing into the pattern of the Persian rug. Without a word she turned around and walked out of the room, her head in the air, her hand still holding a broad fragment of the glass.

Time stood still, people stared, nobody spoke.

Jeremy moved closer to Rachel.

‘Oh,’ he said in a low voice, ‘I think she really was angry.’

END

Tasmanian Memoir of WW2

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.

mother and skete421 2.jpg
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)

 

PENNYWEIGHT FLAT * CHILDREN’S CEMETERY

Death and Burial on the Goldfields of Victoria

Pennyweight Flat Cemetery Castlemaine

PENNYWIEGHT.jpg

Mary Skillicorn died at eighteen months in Castlemaine in 1854. She is buried in a tiny rocky cemetery beneath crooked sheltering grey box gums in Pennyweight Flat where the colours are soft greys and browns, with accents of pink and purple and acid green. Around her in the leaf litter and rubble of stones are the graves of two hundred other children of the gold-rush. Most of the graves have been obliterated by time, but a few grey-green lichen-covered headstones with faded lettering mark the spot, tell a fragment of the tale. It is perhaps because these graves have almost, but not quite, returned to the earth that they are so particularly heart-breaking. Mary shares her place with Elizabeth Carbis. On one grave grows a lone wild yellow daisy, the only flower around. The stone here is lettered in Chinese.

Beneath a clear cornflower sky we met in the morning round the prehistoric, strangely horizontal trunk of a gum. We had brought chairs and rugs – an antique floral parasol – from a distance you might imagine we were twenty people maybe having a picnic. This was December 27, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and the priest from the Castlemaine Anglican parish was assembling an altar between a flaking headstone and the scarred fat friendly tree-trunk.

These faded, broken details of the few headstones are so tantalising and so poignant, and yet in their very slender way they begin to form a picture of short lives lived long ago. One simply says ‘Emil’, the rest has dissolved away. All the children died between 1852 and 1857, a time when fetid and polluted water, poor food and deadly diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria and whooping cough were everyday features of the diggings. Pennyweight Flat was so named because it was impossible to find more than a pennyweight of gold in an acre of ground in that location, so it was from the beginning a hard, grim place. In fact it seems impossible to believe that a skerrick of gold ever surfaced here. Is it too fanciful to imagine the remains of the children as a treasure buried in the ground, marked by collections and patterns of stones? The place was fenced and restored, to a degree, in 1929, by public subscription.

The scattered little graves have brought the people here today, have attracted us all to the unrecorded stories we know are here, and know will probably never be clearly told. The first child buried here was Henry Baxter, one year and nine months old, on May 28, 1852. His grave is on the highest point, and is the largest assembly of stones. A little web research tells me the name ‘Skillicorn’ was common on the Isle of Man; perhaps it would be possible to discover Mary’s family. There are no Skillicorns in the local phone book. Because Mary is named and framed by her dates, she seems to me to have an identity here under the umbrella of the gum trees. Most of the two hundred are nameless, and are consequently shady presences over whose bones we presumably are walking with our careless and sacrilegious feet.

This land was of course the home of indigenous people long before the diggers came looking for gold. It is inhabited by the ghosts of those other children too. And there is something utterly un-European in the atmosphere of the place. Parched yet pale green fields stretch away from the fenced and raised area of the graveyard, and a line of houses is visible in the near distance. But the mood and texture around the graves is quite different, is filled with a spirit all its own, filled with a hovering silence, gently broken by the words of the Prayer Book liturgy, so English and elegant and dignified. Comforting and musical, but telling today a terrible story, a story that binds itself to the stories of the cemetery babies, some of whom were, in a sense, victims of the common lust for gold.

In the days following the birth of Christ, King Herod ordered the slaughter of all newborn boys in Bethlehem, hoping to eliminate the promised Messiah by overkill. The feast on December 27, after the joys of Christmas day, remembers those innocent victims of Herod’s purge. The ceremony at Pennyweight Flat, an isolated place of peace and sorrow, far from Bethlehem, far from England, constructs an embrace that stretches across time and space to gather in the lives of all children who have died, known and unknown, near and far.

In the midst of the ritual of the service of Holy Communion, the priest invited people to speak personally of their feelings about the place, their reasons for being present. And with great spontaneous eloquence they told of their varying comprehensions of the meaning of Pennyweight Flat. One spoke of a vision of the spirits of the children being welcomed into the company of angels. One drew attention to the most recent news items of the violent deaths of children in a war zone. One woman expressed her gratitude for the health of her own four children. It was a unique and curious feeling to be in such a forlornly lovely place and to hear such a mixture of the spiritual and the terrible and the everyday. Curious indeed to hear voices there at all, for it is a lonely and a silent place. At least three of the people were quietly drawing patterns in the dust with sticks as they listened or spoke, as if in imitation of the actions of a child.

The priest, vested in a striking splash of scarlet among the muted colours of the graveyard, and wearing a neat Akubra, distributed to the congregation small prints of a picture by William Blake. It is an arresting, difficult, disturbing and unexpected image of the Baby Jesus naked and lying, not in a manger, but on a cross, a holy innocent cradled by his own future. And there was a reading of Blake’s poem ‘Holy Thursday’ from the ‘Songs of Innocence’ which ends with the line:

‘Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.’ Poetry seemed to be the right response to the occasion which was so steeped in history and sorrow, as well as being informed by great simplicity and goodness.

As I walked away I picked from the flurry of dried gum leaves on the cemetery floor a little piece of dark grey slate, a sliver of green glass, and a stump of bright orange crayon, and took them home. I am not really sure why I did this, but it seemed to be somehow a necessary gesture. The other thing I did was to return the following day to Pennyweight Flat with a bunch of herbs and marigolds from the garden. I placed them on the grave of Mary Skillicorn and Elizabeth Carbis. I did this with due reverence, but I have to confess that I was probably responding to my own fascination and delight in the odd music of Mary’s name. Maybe the herbs were for the two hundred, but it was Mary Skillicorn who accepted the posy in their name.

MERMAID

images.jpeg

Trying in her small way to reduce the number of plastic bags in the oceans, the woman took to the supermarket two cloth bags intended to contain her shopping. One bag was made from several pieces of floral cotton, the other was plain unbleached calico. Printed on the flowery one was the word: Boomerang. The calico one was stamped in brown ink with the image of a mermaid and the little modern mantra: Always Be Yourself Unless You Can Be a Mermaid. The woman drove a wire trolley around the aisles. Somewhere in one of the aisles, when she was not paying attention, she never knew how it happened, the cloth bags both slipped from the trolley. So by the time she reached the checkout, she had to ask for plastic bags anyway. Across from her, at the next checkout, far away and out of reach, a woman with shiny brown curly hair and her daughter with weird brown dreadlocks handed over to the checkout chick a floral cotton bag and an unbleached calico bag bearing the faint brown outline of a mermaid. They bought a large plastic bottle of water and a lot of museli bars.

                                     always be yourself unless you can be a mermaid 

RAF THE DOG

 

‘All knowledge – the totality of all questions and answers – is contained in the dog.’

Franz Kafka from ‘Investigations of the Dog’.

Screen Shot 2016-09-21 at 7.11.29 AM 3.jpg

Rafael

In the seventeenth century Cervantes wrote a story called ‘The Conversation of Dogs’. It consisted of the midnight conversation between two dogs as overheard by the narrator of the story. And long before that, in the fifth century BC the fables of Aesop recorded the wit, wisdom and character traits of the animals. In more recent times there are the tales of Beatrix Potter and the works of Lewis Carroll. The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban is a brilliant modern example of the tradition. Talking animals are most often found in stories for children, although famous examples of adult works in the genre are by Orwell, Chekov and Woolf. Recently Andrew O’Hagan published The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe which is written by a maltese belonging to the star.

The world is probably divided into two kinds of people, those who like books by dogs and those who don’t. I do. I loved the idea of O’Hagan’s book when I first heard of it, and I was utterly captivated by the reading, thrilled by the wit, energy and rhythm of the writing. The reflections of Maf are superb insights into America in the early sixties, as well as into big subjects such as literature, art, psychology, history and politics. This is philosophy at its most engaging. The view Maf gives of Marilyn is unlike any other, and is ultimately a most lucid and moving one. He can read her mind, and there is a point at which she can read his. He is so wise and wistful, she so fragile and doomed. On the one hand this book is a revelation about all the dogs in literature and art, and on the other it is a novel of profound and highly entertaining insight into the human heart.

It is this novel that has given me the courage to tell the story of

‘Raf the Dog – a Tale of Mystery, Money and the Supernatural’.

 

Many years ago when I was living in the city I felt the need for a companion in the form of a small white dog. My daughter is an expert at finding cats and dogs for humans, so she was on the case, preferring to give homes to rescued dogs, rather than buy brand new dogs. We investigated several shelters, but to no avail. I grew tired of the hunt and finally decided to buy a new puppy. The price of course began, back then, at around $400. This was not going to be easy. Taking a common sense approach I went to the local credit union and opened a special purpose account.

‘What is the purpose?’ asked the teller, not looking up from her keyboard.

‘I am buying a dog.’

There was a sudden burst of sunlight that radiated instantly from within the teller. Her gold bracelets jangled, her spectacles winked, her lovely teeth gleamed at me with pleasure.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘a dog! What kind of dog?’

‘A maltese.’

‘Oh yes! Yes. They are so beautiful. So sweet. So wise and wistful. You are doing the right thing.’

So I did the right thing and deposited some idiotically small amount of money in the account which was recorded as being ‘For Purchase of Dog’.

Project Dog was under way.

When I got home there was a message on the phone from my daughter.

It said:

‘I have your dog. Call me.’

This was like the message left by a dognapper. Alarming and horrible.

With pounding heart I called back and she told me she was out at the RSPCA with a sad little maltese in her arms. I rushed out to see him, and there he was, a tiny, bewildered, skin and bone creature in a blue knitted jacket staring up at me with big brown eyes. Wise? Yes. Wistful? Oh yes. Love at first sight. He had been abandoned in an outer suburb, and had somehow survived long enough to be rescued. I bought him, and two days later was able to take him home. My daughter likes to name animals, and she named him Rafael, after the Archangel. I took him to visit the lady at the credit union and she lit up all over again.

‘The Archangel!’ she cried.

He has many charming ways, but one of his rather tedious habits consists of sniffing and grubbing vigorously under scruffy bushes by the side of the road. Once he came out of the bush having divested himself of his fancy overcoat. A Superman moment. And another time, having been busily grubbing, he emerged from the bush with something in his mouth. It was a mobile phone.

I took the phone home and worked out how to contact the owner. She said she would come round in a few minutes and collect the phone. Before long she was jogging down the front path, ponytail flying, sunglasses on top of her head, pink lycra and silver trainers flashing in the sun.

‘Hi, I’m Samsara.’ She was bouncing on the spot. I kind of understood how the phone had ended up in the bush.

I said hello and held out the phone. Without a break in the bouncing, she reached out and swept the phone from my palm.

‘Thanks,’ she said, and was gone, bouncing off up the garden path and out the gate.

I never heard from her again. Her name is from Sanskrit, and Wikipedia says it ‘refers to a place, set of objects and possessions, but originally referred to a process of continuous pursuit of flow of life.’ Well, she did seem to be in continuous pursuit of that flow, down the garden path and up again. Did I receive a card, a note, an email, a text? Roses? Champagne? Right, I did not.

A few years later I decided to sell the house in the city and move to the backblocks. There would be an auction. There would be Open For Inspection. On the first day of the inspections I planned, as is proper, to be far away from the house. However that morning my computer packed up, and just before the inspectors were due to arrive, the technician came, so when the people were looking over the house, I was in the study with the tech and the computer. I was trying to pay no attention to what was going on behind me, but suddenly a voice said:

‘Hi, remember me, I’m Samsara.’

Sure enough, there she was, her ponytail intact, her clothes more sober, and in her arms a baby, at her feet a child, behind her a husband. She recalled the incident of the mobile, and then they all moved on, mingling with the other visitors. Were they serious? Well I didn’t hang around on the other Open for Inspection days, but always on the list of people the name Samara would appear.

On auction day, going, going, gone, Samsara bought the house.

No roses, no champagne, just a cheque for the deposit, balance due in sixty days.

How the spectacles of the lady at the credit union sparkled and twinkled. How she clapped her hands and rattled her bracelets.

‘What a dog!’ she said. ‘What a dog!’