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

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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

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(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

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‘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.

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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

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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

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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’.

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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!’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MATHINNA

MATHINNA.jpegThis essay first appeared in a collection ‘Storykeepers’ edited by Marion Halligan, published by Duffy and Snellgrove in 2001.

 

A SHORT STRANGE SECRET MISTY SMOKY MYSTERIOUS HISTORY

Sometimes people ask me how growing up in Tasmania has affected my work as a fiction writer. I lived in Tasmania for the first twenty-three years of my life, and from the beginning I was fascinated by the short, strange, secret history of the place. I entertained myself quite a bit by reading the books in our house. I still have some of the books, and so I can refer to them in detail, not having to rely on memory.

 

Among the large and gloomy books which inspired me were two volumes called The Cyclopedia of Tasmania. This was a curious compendium of facts from the state’s past, published in 1900. I loved looking at these books. They consisted of page after page of photographs of people and buildings, as well as text, and they were such imposing volumes, so self-important and arresting. Most of the people in them were men with beards and wide, staring eyes. Very, very occasionally there was a picture of a woman such as Miss Marion Oldham who was the Principal of the Wattle Grove State School, but women were generally not part of the main narrative.

 

There is Mrs Ferrar, who appears seated beside her husband. Mrs Ferrar ‘remembers some exciting scenes in connection with the early days of the colony, when the aborigines were as thick as the proverbial bees, and as troublesome as wild beasts.’ I wonder if Mrs Ferrar spoke those words. Once Mrs Ferrar was speared and clubbed, but ‘happily with no serious results’. The phrase ‘speared and clubbed’ is one I have always found particularly arresting. It is so plain, so stark, bluntly violent, so inarguable. This prose is much more lively than is usual in The Cyclopedia. ‘As thick as the proverbial bees, and as troublesome as wild beasts.’

 

There is a description of ‘one of the handsomest shops in the colonies’. This is quite interesting, because the entry in The Cyclopedia begins by describing the shop itself, before explaining what Mr A.P. Miller – Chemist, Druggist, and Distiller – does. The shop is so elegant and ornamented, with its bevelled glass and embossed gold lettering, its sheoak drawers with crystal knobs, its windows decorated with designs of Tasmanian wildflowers and birds. Mr Miller was one of the first people in Tasmania to use the oil of the blue gum tree in the manufacture of creams and soaps and ointments. So The Cyclopedia is not without its glimpses of literary felicity. I really liked Mr Miller, a character who came to life among hundreds of characters who didn’t.

 

Mostly the prose is incredibly dull. Its very leaden nature stimulated my imagination, and the titles of institutions were enough to set me thinking. Imagine the Church of England Home of Mercy for Fallen Women. Then, there is an absence of children. In a photograph of a giant tree (Tasmania is famous for giant trees) a small girl in a white pinafore and bonnet sits at the root of the tree, while to the left, almost invisible, there sits a woman in black, wearing a stern hat. Both figures have their hands folded on their lap. To the right a man lounges against the base of the tree, his back to the other figures, his hat rather jaunty, his hand on his hip. He stares into the distance. The woman and child suggest themselves as fairy folk. Behind the tree, which reaches up into the heavens beyond the frame, all is misty, smoky, mysterious. How could I not be affected by all this? I was, of course, deeply affected.

 

Another notable absence from the pictures and the narrative is that of the Chinese population which was actually considerable. Even as a child I wondered about that. This is a white, generally Protestant, serious, respectable history. Yet as I will explain, it awakened and nourished my interest in the stories of indigenous Tasmanians.

 

The businessmen who subscribed to the publishing costs of the books were the principal characters in the narrative of The Cyclopedia. The authors, generally, are not acknowledged, so it is often impossible to know who was behind the story, responsible for the language, at any time.

 

One particularly fascinating section is at the back of Volume Two – ‘Curious Facts of Old Colonial Days’. It includes entries headed ‘State Morals in the Early Days’ and ‘Strong Drink in Van Diemen’s Land’. Then there are six pages titled ‘The Aborigines of Tasmania’. This part has no photographs. It seems to be a little afterthought. It is followed by a section called ‘Miscellaneous’. The section about the Aborigines begins with the information:

 

‘A special interest attaches to the aboriginal inhabitants of ‘the garden island’ inasmuch as they have become utterly extinct; and that too within the memory of many persons who are still in the prime of life.’ There follows a selection of notes from James Bonwick’s work Daily Life and Origin of the Tasmanians. The extinction is stated as a fact, uninformed by pathos, let alone outrage.

 

Now I was prepared to believe what the book said, that this race of people had ‘completely disappeared off the face of the earth’. I found the idea remarkable and horrifying, and it is not only with hindsight that I say I felt there was something really creepy about the prose itself, this smooth, confident story of what was being named ‘extinction’. ‘They have become utterly extinct.’ ‘Extinct’ was not then a word often, or ever, used in ordinary conversation. I was interested in it. It sounded like a whip.

 

When I was very young I went to the Hobart Museum where I saw the tiny skeleton of Truganini who was supposed to have been the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines. I had never even seen a human skeleton before, let alone the skeleton of the last member of a lost race of people. I felt awe and a dreadful, shocked sadness. I remember the skeleton as being somehow unrelated to human life, so tiny, so museumy – more like the remains of a bandicoot or something. So this was extinction.

 

Then there was another book I used to pore over, a cheap green-bound volume published in 1928, Tasmania’s North-East. This one is written in a much more lively and personal style, and I really liked that about it. The author, Mr A. W. Loone, invents headings such as ‘Child Shockingly Mutilated’ and ‘Experience With Grasses’ and ‘The Joke that Failed’. This was clearly a better class of story. The author also quotes James Bonwick, but the burden of his narrative is one of deep compassion and a very real sorrow. He believes the accepted version of the extinction of the race, but his regret is palpable. Other texts I read were informed with a smug congratultion that extinction had been acheived. A most curious feature of this book is that its final chapter, called a ‘Conclusion’ concerns three important Tasmanian Aborigines. It felt to me even as a child that it was a peculiar way to end a book that seemed to be about the pioneers and adventurers and early settlers of the district. It was not usual to end on this note. It is no afterthought, but rather a lament which insists on being spoken, which sits most powerfully as the final statement of the book. The last glossy illustration is a reproduction of the Thomas Bock portrait of the Aboriginal known as Jack of Cape Grim. One of the three Aborigines in the last chapter is Truganini, one is King Billy, and the third is Mathinna.

 

The first sentence in this chapter says: ‘The history of Mathinna is melancholy in the extreme.’

 

The entire hidden tragedy and mystery, lit with the flashes of what horrors I knew of the fate of Tasmanian Aborigines, exercised a fascination over my early imagination, but possibly my heart was most deeply touched by the story of this girl. Mathinna. This little girl. There was a smudgy black and white reproduction of Thomas Bock’s portrait of her in some other book belonging to my father, but I no longer have that book. I used to stare and stare at the picture, convinced somehow that the sitter was looking into my soul. Or I was looking into hers. (A portrait of the Princes in the Tower actually had a similar effect on me. I would keep returning to these sweet boys – they resembled girls – who had been murdered and disposed of, never to be found.) I can’t recall when I first saw the picture of Mathinna in colour, but I had imagined that her dress was pink. In fact it is red. The redness seems now to be somehow very significant. I recall my mother telling me that it was actually right to put red shoes on little girls, but wrong to put red shoes on little boys. In fact I really expected Mathinna should have been wearing a white dress. I would have given her a white dress, I thought. Did somebody agonise over the colour? Or was it just that there was a handy piece of red cloth? I was very attracted to portraits of children, and I had several prints of these framed on my bedroom wall, and I thought about them a lot. I am quite sentimental – I have to tell you that for me this picture of Mathinna is the saddest, sweetest, dearest image, and its meaning for me is entwined with my own early life and early reading, as a child, in Tasmania.

 

Let me tell you what I know about the story of Mathinna.

 

In 1833, two years before Mathinna was born, her people of the South West tribe were captured by George Augustus Robinson as part of his re-location program, and removed to the Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island. This settlement was part of a failed experiment in the management of the native people of Van Diemen’s Land. Mathinna was born on Flinders Island and was separated from her family, sent to live with the school-teacher as part of a policy to educate the children in white ways as early as possible in their lives. She was in fact the second child her parents had lost to the white authorities. So from the very beginning of her life Mathinna was alienated from her own people. Her name was to begin with ‘Mary’ but was later changed by white folk to ‘Mathinna’, suggesting to me a rather complex and bewildering confusion of black and white identity.

 

The Governor of the colony in Van Diemen’s Land was John Franklin, and in 1838 he and his wife Jane visited the Aboriginal settlement at Wybalenna on Flinders Island. They inspected the place and were entertained by the Aborigines with song and dance, and they gave out gifts of beads, handkerchiefs, knives, and marbles. Two years later the Governor and his Lady returned to Wybalenna, and this time they arranged for the child Mary (soon to become known as Mathinna) who was now five, to live with them at Government House in Hobart Town.

 

 

 

Mathinna was suddenly elevated to the status of a child of colonial aristocracy. She shared a governess with Eleanor, the daughter of John Franklin, and rode in the carriage with Lady Franklin. It was at this time that Lady Franklin commissioned Thomas Bock to paint Mathinna’s portrait. Eleanor Franklin kept a diary in which she mentioned Mathinna only twice, a fact that I see as significant in what it reveals about Eleanor’s relationship or lack of it with Mathinna. I will quote these entries which I first read when I was about twelve.

 

Eleanor wrote: ‘The last Aborigines were caught about a fortnight ago, and sent to Flinders Island, so that our little native girl is the only one remaining here. She is improving I think, though it will be a long time before she becomes quite civilised.’

 

The other entry, in which Eleanor copies out a letter written by Mathinna, is, in the context of Mathinna’s life, one of the most moving and touching passages I have ever read in its simplicity and its vivid revelation of a life. It is a statement in the form of a letter to Mathinna’s step-father (her own father died when she was two). It seems to me that there is a conflation of three fathers – the step-father, Governor Franklin, and God. The letter is dated 14 November 1841, and it reads:

 

‘Mathinna is six years old. Her mother Eveline, father, modern name Hannibal, Cape Sorell tribe. I am good little girl. I have pen and ink cause I am good little girl. I do love my father. I have got a doll and shift and a petticoat. I read. My father I thank thee for sleep. I have got red frock. Like my father. Come here to see my father. I have got sore feet and shoes and stockings and I am very glad. All great ships. Tell my father two rooms.’

 

This period in Mathinna’s life, when she had her own bedroom and her pet possum, when she danced for visitors in her English clothes, did not last long. Two years in fact. Two years during which time she became the pet of the Europeans, but could no longer relate to her own people. The Franklins left Van Diemen’s Land and returned to England in 1843, leaving her behind. She was placed in the Queen’s Orphan School in Hobart where she was utterly different from and unacceptable to the other children. A year later she was back on Flinders Island living with the school master. Fanny Cochrane, an Aboriginal girl who was Mathinna’s age, and who in fact lived to be seventy, was living there as well. The Aborigines at Wybalenna were dying. Mathinna’s step-father died when Mathinna was eleven – her mother was already dead. When she was twelve Mathinna was returned to the Queen’s Orphan School.

 

At New Norfolk, north west of Hobart, the governor had a country house which Mathinna had visited when she was a member of the Franklin household. She was now taken there for a Christmas treat, as an orphan from the school. Governor and Lady Denison gave a big party, with plum pudding and gifts. There was a tent on the lawn for white folk and a tent for black folk. The Europeans were very interested in the Aborigines, since such people had not been seen in public in southern Van Diemen’s Land for a long time. There was a genuine desire to give the Aborigines a good time at the party, but there was also a sense in which they were a collection of freaks on show. It is so sad and poignant to imagine Mathinna as one of the Aborigines who played and danced for the European audience, she who not long before would have been among the privileged white children herself. And it was only a day outing. In the evening the carriages took the visitors back to the Orphan School.

 

The Orphan School was an abject Dickensian place of overcrowding, disease, hunger and punishment. The Denisons were interested in trying to improve the conditions, paying visits and taking gifts, and giving prizes for good work. By the time Mathinna left the school at the age of sixteen, she was the only Aboriginal left. She went to live at the tragic settlement at Oyster Cove where the dwindling group of Aborigines were dying of loneliness, disease and broken hearts.

 

By the time she was twenty-one Mathinna was trading her body for alcohol, and one night when she was drunk she fell into the water, and she drowned.

 

I try to match the end of this story with the image of the child in the red dress, and I fancy that in the soft hands, gentle smile, and in the intense and searching eyes of the portrait, I can feel the tragedy of the child’s future already written.

 

You can see that I have a special affection for and relationship with this portrait. I have carried a framed print of it round with me for a long time. Some years ago I went to live in an old house in Melbourne. I was using one of the rooms as a store-room for the time being. But for some reason I banged a nail in the wall and put up one picture, the picture of Mathinna. In the middle of the night, the ceiling of that room came crashing down. Now I realise that that ceiling was ancient and unstable, and that I had disturbed it by hammering the nail into the wall, but I choose to wonder. Would the ceiling have descended it the picture had been of my father in his cricket team?

 

When I was discussing this essay with Marion, the editor of the book, I told her the anecdote of the ceiling. That night, another piece of ceiling, this time in the bedroom, fell down, disturbed, I like to think, by my telling of the story. I have now had all the ceilings in the house replaced. They are superb. Growing up in Tasmania has affected my reading, my writing, and my ceilings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Presentación de ‘Hijas de un sueño’ en la Biblioteca Provincial de Huelva (23/03/18). Ciclo: ‘La mujer cuenta en las bibliotecas’

Gerardo Rodríguez Salas

El viernes 23 de marzo a las 20 horas presentaré mi libro Hijas de un sueño en la Biblioteca Provincial de Huelva (Avd. Martín Alonso Pinzón) dentro del calendario de actividades organizadas con motivo del Día Internacional de la Mujer bajo el título ‘La mujer cuenta en las bibliotecas’. Estaré acompañado por la Profesora de Literatura Beatriz Domínguez García, de la Universidad de Huelva.

Link a la noticia

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