Long long ago – it was 1980 – an architect designed a house in which several of the external walls were mostly made from glass. I live in that house. I try not to throw stones. Throughout the day, sunlight penetrates the walls of different rooms as the sun moves across the heavens.

The rays of the morning sun enter the house through the glass wall of the laundry. Sometimes I will take a visitor into the laundry and I will show them the shadows that appear on the wall above the sink. This happens by about nine in the morning, depending on the time of year. Yes, it’s a little breakfast treat – a visit to the laundry.

Look, I say, will you look at that!

And they look at the shadow on the wall and they look at me, and they go – wha?

But it’s a witch, I say – look at the witch on wall.

They can’t see the witch, and I can’t see why they can’t see. Here comes the sun, there goes the witch!

As the sunlight strikes the top of the fire extinguisher, the shadow of a witch on a broomstick is projected onto the wall above the sink.

Throughout the day the sun shines down on a pergola that’s covered in vines, and the shadows of the vines fall on the path beneath.

Then later in the afternoon the sunlight hits the surfaces of a mirror ball by my desk, a mirror ball that sits on the back of the statue of a scarlet elephant. The whole room becomes a cavern of slowly shifting dots and diamonds and splashes of light.

It’s nice to nudge the elephant, or to make him turn round – then the lights will obey you, and they’ll dance. If you want, you can take matters into your own hands in the form of the mirror ball, and you can lead the dance of the lights as they whirl or jump. It’s a dream.

In 1969 on Abbey Roadthe Beatles released ‘Here Comes the Sun’. Like many Beatles songs it’s dramatic and adorable at the same time. It is one of those songs that inhabit your brain.

I didn’t specially associate the daily adventure in light and shade with the Beatles song until one time in 2017.

A friend lent me a cello and I took some lessons and I joined a local community orchestra. One of the first pieces we played that year was ‘Here Comes the Sun’. Bliss! Ah – actually getting inside the words and the music with a whole lot of other people and instruments – harps, ukuleles, clarinets, saxophones – guitars, naturally – you name them, we have them in our orchestra.

That Christmas we gave a concert in the Town Hall, which is a grand old goldfields construction made from seriously historic stone. No glass walls there. And on the playlist, naturally, we had my favourite – we played ‘Here Comes the Sun’. Oh the thrill of being part of the recreation of the song – and the glorious optimism of both the words and the melody. These days, when I see the witch and the elephant I sometimes hear the music too – well, here comes the sun! Again.


Unknown 2.jpg

The following lecture was delivered as the Second McDermott Lecture at the University of Barcelona, December, 2001. It’s now December 2018. Long live the Sniffer Dog. 



– Growing up as a Writer in Tasmania –


At the  tiny airport in my hometown of Launceston in Tasmania are large posters on which there is a picture of a rather appealing beagle. Underneath the picture are the words:

“Beware the Tasmanian Sniffer Dog.”

In the present climate of airport security, the poster takes on a newer and larger significance than it used to have. It was always very serious, but actually bore no reference to weapons or drugs. I will read you the rest of the information on the poster.

‘Tasmania has earned a reputation as one of the most hospitable places on earth. However there are certain visitors that we do not welcome to this state.

And these visitors – in the form of pests and diseases – could be your travelling companions.

To keep out these unwelcome guests, Tasmania has some of the world’s most stringent quarantine regulations. Please help us to retain Tasmania’s disease-free status by ensuring that you are not carrying any of the following items:

Fresh fruit or vegetables


Plants or plant parts

Cut flowers

Anything carrying soil

If you pass the barrier checkpoint with any of these items our trained sniffer dogs will detect them and you will be find a hundred dollars on the spot.’

So Tasmania is an island where agriculture is protected from the infections of the outside world. Tasmanians are proud of the clean air, clean water, good fishing, great cheeses, wilderness forests – the general purity and even innocence of their small and beautiful world.


I was born in Tasmania and I lived there for the first twenty-three years of my life. Naturally enough, in the material of those years, in that place, at that time, can be perceived the foundations of the writer of fiction which I have become.


Tasmania is an island about the size of Ireland. It suffers – if that’s the word – from many of the things that islands all over the world can suffer from – and these things I will discuss as I proceed. It is located off the south eastern tip of Australia, and if you keep going south from Tasmania you come to the Antarctic. It is the smallest Australian state by far, much much smaller than the others. It is generally treated by Australians from other parts of the country with a mixture of contempt and envy – emotions which translate into various forms of humour which is repetitive and predictable. The island is envied for its physical beauty, and reviled for its history – and  because it is small, and because it is different. Tasmanians themselves see the island as bearing the shape of a heart; other Australians usually see it as a tuft of female pubic hair, or a pellet of excrement. Because the outline of the map of Australia is easier to draw without including the island of Tasmania, Tasmania is frequently left off the map.


Yet people from other parts of Australia love to come to Tasmania for holidays, and it has always been a very popular destination for honeymoons. Right now there is a trend towards seeing it as a place to which to retire at the end of a working life. There is a sense in which it is seen as Paradise – for the mountains and beaches and rivers and forests and farms and orchards are beautiful and bountiful, and visitors are welcomed and celebrated. Although sometimes you can hear Tasmanians say, expressing an ambivalence – well, they like tourism, but it’s a pity the tourists have to make so much mess and clog up the roads.


The island is separated from the Australian mainland by a piece of water 200 miles wide. This water is called Bass Strait, and it is one of the most treacherous bits of ocean in the world. The Roaring Forties blow in, with nothing to stop them between the east coast of Africa and the west coast of Tasmania. In Bass Strait the winds meet 126 little islands, and the waters are full of strange channels, so that the bottom of the Strait is covered in the wrecks of ships. To cross Bass Strait by boat is thrilling and dangerous, and even when you cross it by air, I believe  you may occasionally be conscious that you are not flying over ordinary water. It is, or at least I should say it has always been to me, not only a physical barrier between Australia and Tasmania, but also a powerful emotional barrier, and I think it works that way for many Tasmanians.


When I was a child living there, the mainland of Australia was usually referred to as ‘over the other side’. To cross Bass Strait was therefore linguistically and emotionally aligned with the journey from life on earth to life beyond the grave. Over the other side is always a better place, a desirable place, and yet the journey is unknown, and so it is, to a certain extent, to be contemplated with caution and fear. As a child I had a great interest in and awe of the other side.


I believe that Tasmania became cut off from the mainland about twelve thousand years ago. A race of aboriginal people was then isolated on the island, and remained undisturbed by visitors until European explorers began to arrive, the first one recorded being Abel Janzen Tasman, who came in 1642. To me the date 1642 marks somehow the beginning of modern Tasmanian time – if you like – the dawn of European influence on Tasmania. Naturally to a Spaniard the date has an utterly different resonance. It falls during the reign of Philip the Fourth – and recorded Spanish history had already been going on for a very long time, so that 1642 is no big deal to a Spaniard. To a Tasmanian it is huge. Notice that it is not the date of a great battle – a great victory or a terrible defeat – but the date of a kind of small revelation – the revealing of the very existence of the place to European sensibility. Tasman named the island after Van Diemen, a high official in the Dutch East India Company, and so it became known as Van Diemen’s Land. That naming was to become so significant, and the name would resonate with a terrible darkness and horror.


The Empire of Britain expanded to occupy the part of New South Wales which is now Sydney in 1788. I use the term ‘occupy’ for the time being, but I will later elaborate and my language will change – you will find I refer not to ‘occupation’ but to ‘invasion’. In 1803 the Colony in New South Wales sent people south to occupy (or invade) Van Diemen’s Land. The main idea was to stop the French from claiming the land – perhaps that’s a sentiment you can sympathise with. The colonisation by the British of what I will call for convenience Australia was effected by military personnel, convicted criminals, and later by people called ‘free settlers’. The colony of Van Diemen’s Land was, the way I read it, tragic in the extreme. It quickly became, in its remoteness not only from Britain, but also from New South Wales, the location for the most difficult convicted criminals from those places, and also from Norfolk Island. Because Van Diemen’s Land was an island, it seemed to be an ideal place to abandon unwanted members of society, and to establish some kind of ownership of the land, and later to develop and use the territory.


Van Diemen’s Land was an alien place where plants and animals were strange, where the landscape itself spoke of despair, with the great unwelcoming cliffs and the dark mysterious forests. In the early years of the colony everybody nearly starved, and escapees from the prisons established a class of bandits known as bushrangers. (The most celebrated man in Australian history is probably Ned Kelly, a bushranger operating on the Australian mainland.) There was also violent conflict between the British and the Indigenous people whose land had in fact been stolen. What developed is described as Tasmania’s Black War – which was at its most intense in 1824. At one point the settlers and the military formed a human chain, a line of people across the island, moving from north to south in an attempt to round up the Indigenous people like animals. In the end they captured only two people. The next tactic was to persuade (a verb which bears examination) the Indigenous people to go, all of them, to a small island in Bass Strait, leaving Van Diemen’s Land free for the British, leaving behind their ancestral Aboriginal places, their traditional lives. The place they went to was called Flinders Island. The result of all this was a kind of concentration camp on Flinders Island where most of the inmates died – it is often said, generally, of the loss of spirit, of a broken heart. There were official attempts to educate and assimilate the Indigenous people on Flinders Island, but these were generally dismal and insensitive. The white people of Van Dienen’s Land raped women, killed them, and killed the men and the children, brought disease, and then corralled the survivors until they died. From that time, the time of the perceived Flinders Island solution to the perceived problem of the Indigenous people – Van Diemen’s Land began to prosper, with free settlers using convicts as slave labour to construct roads and buildings. The society of Van Diemen’s Land was brutal and violent and convulsive. Transportation of convicted criminals from Britain came to an end in 1853. (If you would like to read about these things in detail I recommend The Fatal Shoreby Robert Hughes.)


And as for the Aboriginal people of Van Diemen’s Land – until very recently they were written up in the history books as having died out completely – the last man being William Lanne who died in 1869, the last woman being Trucanini who died in 1876. The language of this discourse is still developing, and I have seen it move in my lifetime from the sad story of the lost tribes of Aborigines to the narrative of colonial massacre and a more or less successful attempt at genocide. The genocide was almost successful, but in fact there are now many Tasmanians alive today whose ancestors were Indigenous, and those people identify themselves as Aboriginal Tasmanians. I must stress that this latter fact does not mean that the campaign against the Tasmanians was not a campaign of genocide. It was genocide. The race that wasis in fact no more. The blood of the Tasmanians is mixed with the blood of other races now, but it has not disappeared. I should point out that the thylacine, a kind of native tiger, along with other animals and plants, was killed off deliberately by the Europeans.


There remains a clear desire in many parts of Australian society to view the extinction of the Tasmanian Aborigines as a fact. And there is also a desire to view the extinction of one of the Tasmanian animals, the thylacine or tiger, as a fable. Truth be told – the Aborigines are notextinct; the thylacines areextinct. People long to discover a living thylacine in Tasmania, and there are sometimes strange reports of sightings, but no real evidence. With a certain perverseness people long for the invisible thylacine and refuse to see the Aborigines before their eyes.

Eleanor Dark was a novelist who wrote The Timeless Land(1941). Writing within the discourse of the prevailing  Australian attitude to the fate of Indigenous people, she wrote

‘The Aboriginal race is nearly gone.’


The dark and violent events of the Tasmanian penal colony, and the saga of the defeat and murder of the Aborigines, sat very very uneasily on the conscience of a society which was cultivating a respectable face. Ashamed, deeply troubled, morally corrupted by their own actions in the recent past, the people of Van Diemen’s Land set about burying the past. In 1853, when the transportation of convicts from England ended, the island was re-named – called Tasmania after the Dutch sailor who came to it – ‘discovered’ it as history books used to say – in 1642. This re-naming was an attempt to cleanse the past, to obliterate from memory the horror and the tragedy and the violent grotesquerie of recent life, to go forward with a false confidence based on some kind of fictional innocence. Many official records of the convict and Aboriginal past were officially destroyed, and families with blood ties to convicts and Aborigines re-wrote the family history to exclude the shameful ancestors. If your grandfather was a horse-thief from Ireland, and a bushranger in Van Diemen’s Land, and your grandmother was an Aboriginal woman, then chances were your grandfather raped your grandmother and was not joined to her in holy wedlock. Your family history was stained with shame. But you were now a respectable farmer who read the lesson in church every Sunday and so you certainly didn’t need those ancestors. You were constructing your dream of paradise in a little paradise island far far from the real centres of power and civilisation and as far as possible from some sort of recorded truth.


In an early history of Tasmania (published in 1852  ) John West described the island:

Its general character is mountainous, with numerous beautiful valleys, rendered fertile by numberless streams descending from the hills, and watering, in their course to the sea, large tracts of country. The south-western coast, washed by the Southern Ocean, is high and cold, but the climate of the northern and inland districts is one of the finest in the temperate zone, and produces in abundance and variety all the fruits which are found under the same latitude in Europe.


He was describing that paradise to which I referred earlier. And there grew up a perception that Tasmania and Paradise had much in common. There was even a suggestion sometimes that Tasmania was in fact the true location of the Garden of Eden. This would make the ancestors not criminals and blacks but, presumably Adam and Eve – somehow or other. From being the hell on earth of Van Diemen’s Land – Tasmania  was to become that Garden of Eden. Somehow. At the expense of truth, and at the expense of a strange and complex and unconscious and on-going un-ease in the spirits of the people.


When I was at school we were taught that if we could sail the island just a few degrees to the north, it really would be the Garden of Eden. If only. Magic Realism wasn’t far away from the classrooms of my childhood. For one thing there had been that swift obliteration of the history of convicts and Aborigines, giving rise to the common invention of fictions. Once I was invited to write an essay about my own country – it was supposed to be submitted to a school magazine in the US. My choice of topic for my essay  was Tasmania’s blood-stained past. My teacher forbade me to send the essay to America since it was not expressing the official narrative line. Censorship is sometimes a marvellous spur to interest and creativity – perhaps the killing of my essay played a part in my desire to write fiction.


The Tasmanian countryside is different from that of most of mainland Australia. There is a poem which all Australian children, including Tasmanian children, used to learn by heart throughout most of the twentieth century. It described Australia as a wide brown land – a sunburnt country. We learnt the poem dutifully, but it does not describe Tasmania –  remember that Tasmania is off the map anyway, is too small and insignificant to figure in the larger picture. Perhaps it’s like – I suppose if you were describing Spain you wouldn’t really stop every time to take, say, Los Canarias into account. I believe that on weather maps they show up as being much closer to the Spanish mainland than they are. That might not be a fair analogy – I don’t know. I do know that Tasmania is to Australia rather like what Newfoundland is to Canada. Anyway, Tasmanians traditionally identified their countryside as being different, as being as a little piece of rural England. They planted hawthorn hedges and English trees, and they built elegant little imitations of the English churches and the Georgian houses of eighteenth century England – and then they built Victorian and Edwardian houses as well. I don’t know how much these architectural terms will mean to you – just believe me when I tell you that the public buildings, farmhouses, houses of the rich, and cottages of the poor – as well as the parks and gardens in Tasmania often resemble charming toy replicas of English places. The indigenous plants were for a long long time considered to be inferior to European plants. It is a great climate for growing apples and cherries and roses.


I have ever so briefly described the history of my native land. I must now enter the scene myself and reflect on how I might have interacted with it to develop a passionate interest in – not only the place itself, but in the writing of a body of fiction which frequently locates itself in my imaginative reconstruction of the place, and which demonstrates I think, somehow, in its tone and position, some of the influences I have described.


I was born into a world in crisis, at the beginning of the Second World War. I have often tried to imagine what it must have been like for a woman bearing a child at that time. But although I know the people had only newspapers, radio newsreels, and letters to supply information, I can’t really envisage how informed they would feel, or how  they would really feel. I somehow remember the radio was always on. Today people are drenched in information so that I imagine a pregnant woman must be daily bombarded with deep  fears and uncertainties. Of course nature does insulate pregnant women in many ways, but I think the situations and conflicts in the world today, full as it is of news, must surely impact deeply and dramatically on the sensibilities and systems of all people, even pregnant women. There was less choice in the developed world in the forties – about having a baby – than there is now. So a woman of today in Australia can (theoretically) make more decisions about having a baby or not having a baby. But I have always wondered how my mother felt about bringing me into the world just then. Perhaps what I am really saying is that I have always been conscious of a personal, a deep and personal, temporal connection to the war. It was a turning point in the century (from my perspective) and I materialised at that turning point. Of course everyone sees their own birth as significant – and you bet it is – but anyhow, I have for some reason always been fascinated by and fixated on the war. (Along with millions of other people, I know – but I am trying to get to the colour of the influences on my own fiction here, and this feeling about the war was one of those.) My father was making optical equipment, and didn’t go to war, but much of life was dominated by the war, of course. There were men and women in uniform, and life was ruled by the disciplines of food rationing and blackouts. It sounds almost surreal – more magic realism perhaps – to describe the effects of war on Tasmania in the forties, when I think of all I have read and seen of the realities of the war as it was fought, and of the ravages of war on other countries. But we lived in the fearand shadow of war. To a child in Tasmania in the early forties, the war was an ordinary fact of life. Everywhere I looked, it seems, people were knitting balaclavas and rolling bandages to send to the troops. We were prepared in case there was an invasion by the Japanese, and so we had a fantastic air-raid shelter under the garden, and personal gas-masks which we also used as play-things. I regret very much that there are not photographs of me and my sisters as small girls in floral dresses running under the apple trees wearing our gas-masks. We had large toy wooden guns called ak-ak guns made by my father. Our attempts at art were filled with drawings and paintings of the enemy – known as Japs and Germans – they both had helmets and huge bared teeth – the Japs were small people with oriental eyes.


So my first five years were lived in the demi-paradise of Tasmania, to the distant sounds of a distant conflict. My world was coloured by the war, but not quite touched by it. I had male cousins who were in the navy, and they all came home, handsome and amazing in their uniforms, alive, experienced, different, changed. Exciting. And then it seems, in my memory, that the war receded, and as it did fascinating strangers began to arrive in Tasmania, un-English people from places like Holland and Italy. One time I was given two Dutch girls to look after at school, and that was so interesting and exciting. From this distance, from memory, I sense that the stability and prosperity which gradually came at the end of the war fell upon the world I knew like some kind of blessing.


But let’s say now that I have arrived at the age of eight, with the war a fading memory. By the age of eight I am conscious that Tasmania is dead weird – I know that I am living in a place that they don’t put on the map. And I feel that this is destabilising, that the place where I live does not exist in the same way that other places exist. England exists. France exists. America exists. At eight I have never been to England, and yet I know that it is real because everything points to its reality. I can’t explain it to myself, and yet I feel that I am nowhere, and I sometimes find this puzzling, sometimes find it uncomfortable, but I also find it very, very thrilling, like a fantastic secret. I wasa sort of weird child, I think. I believe that all this – all that I have so far explored about the place, and my position in the place – has resolved itself – if that’s the word – into the making of fiction.


At the age of eight I am conscious – and I still can’t really explain how or why this is so – conscious that there are terrible secrets somewhere just below the surface of this place where I live, that the surface is somehow constructed of lies and half-truths. I am there but I am nowhere. The far interior of mainland Australia is known as the Never-Never – Tasmania could be – still could be – the Nowhere-Nowhere.


The history I learnt at school was the history of England. I have still, in fact, a copy of my history book. It is Book Four in a series –The Tasmanian History Readers. It is in the Royal School Series, and it is published by the Education Department of Tasmania. In the back of the book is a Summary of History With Dates. The events listed in the summary are ‘Death of Elizabeth and accession of James the First. The date is 1603. You will recall that Tasmania was discovered (as we say) in 1642. So we were already forty years short in this history book, if you were looking at it from the perspective of a Tasmanian child. We were not being written out of the history books – we had not yet gotten into the game.


So, I am eight – I am a bright and inquisitive and active child with many interests and skills, but I am also creepily determined to walk back into the darkness of the terrible shadows I half sense in the streets and stones and waters around me. There are signs, and pieces of evidence of strange unspoken events – bricks marked by the broad arrow of the convict builders, a few places with the musical names of  Aborigines or bushrangers – just stories with no connection with the present, or even with the realities of the history I learn. The history book I mentioned has a section of poems for readers to learn, and they have in them such lines as ‘So far I live to the northward, No man lives north of me, To the east are the wild mountain chains, To the westward all is sea.’ Well the last bit was right. I am not meaning to suggest that everything a child is told must feed in to a sense of personal nationalism, but in my case there was no official acknowledgment of even the reality of my own country. Australia did not come into the story in those days (it is different now) and if Australia didn’t figure in the history of the British, then Tasmania did not even figure in the story of Australia. So to me there was a sense that I was living and breathing in a place which for some reason did not really exist. You may think that all of this is being explored and explained in hindsight, that it is fanciful nonsense. Some of it must be the explanation of hindsight, but I do in fact recall much of this from childhood, much of the feeling, the suspicion, the sense of dislocation. I knew I was living in a haunted land, a land very recently haunted, a land where everybody seemed to deny the existence of the ghosts, and even to deny the reality of the real in a strange deference to the mainland of Australia, and the great and beautiful homeland of Great Britain, and also of Ireland.


As a child I had two ongoing projects which went against the grain of normal everyday life. One was seeking information about what happened to the Tasmanian Aborigines, and the other was to find out everything I could about the convict past of Van Diemen’s Land. I do believe that these interests were related to my feeling that Tasmania itself was a kind of myth. I used to – well I still do – collect references to Tasmania in unexpected places – passing  references in literature for instance – like in Nabokov or Virginia Woolf. It is often used as a kind of amusing reference to somewhere a bit exotic, a bit funny, a long way away, of no real significance. Of course these references didn’t re-assure me of the firm existence of Tasmania – they just added to the air of weird quaint unreality. The most recent one of these I found was in the New Yorker (in 2001), in a short story: A man in Denver, Colorado, ‘considered selling the factory, removing himself to Tasmania or Kuala Lumpur.’


It is probably much too simple to explain it all like that. And please remember that I am exploring all this only for the purpose of examining some of the springs of my own identification as a writer of fiction, as a writer born at a certain time in a certain place, writing in a certain way. Writers are sometimes quite interested in visiting Tasmania nowadays, and even in the past writers such as Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Jack London, Agatha Christie – they visited the island and wrote a little about it. But my imagination constantly returns to the feeling I had that I was a girl in the middle of a lovely hidden nowhere which was whispering with horrible horrible secrets.


I believe that the apparent problematic nature, and even non-existence of my early home, had a significant effect on the way I looked at the world, and had the effect of shaping my desire to write, and on shaping the nature of the writing. The first years of my life were spent walking on the pathways of this non-existent island, climbing the hills of nowhere, swimming in a sea which washed onto the shores of nothing.


I remember something I used to do some days when I came home from school, and as I reflect on the idea of living in nowhere-land, this action of mine, I realise, could be linked, maybe, to my experience of the nothing of nowhere. Instead of entering the house in the normal way, which was to walk down a wide driveway  on the right and go round to the back door, I would approach the left side of the house. The sinister side? The strip of land between the house and the fence is too narrow to get the sun. There is a raised garden bed filled with greenery that can survive in shade. At either end of the pathway is a tall green fence and gate, both made from slim slats of timber crossing each other to form lace-work. The whole area is therefore enclosed – by the house, the side fence, the two gates. The light was always different between the gates. It was a world of its own, an enclosure, a sacred space.


I get to the first gate, put down my school case, undo the bolt on the gate, pick up my case, go through the gate, close the gate behind me. I am in. I take as long as possible to walk the short distance from one gate to the other, to go the length of the house. I feel nothing, think nothing, am nothing. I am nowhere. I cease to exist, I merge with the nothingness, I drift. I am somehow obedient to a higher force. I am permitted to sit down on the edge of the flower-bed, but only in order to stare at the flowers and leaves, to sniff them, and taste them. I am not permitted to read or to draw. I may not doanything that is not connected with the place itself. I may only be.


There was no act of imagination. It was more an act of ssnegation, an exercise in disappearing. Having disappeared, I possessed the place, possessed myself, was possessed by the place. It is hard to describe what I was doing, because the act itself was against words and images. Perhaps it was something like meditation or hypnosis, but I don’t like to say so because these words give a false impression. There was a feeling of going in, being trapped, fulfilling the requirements of nothingness, giving in to nowhere. Then getting out. I knew I would emerge, would take up the real world again, be a schoolgirl with hat and gloves. I would go into the house, open the case, get out my books and pencils.


But in the time between the lattice gates I was gone, I was nowhere, I was not. The place had no name, no language, no essential characteristics. It was a piece of time and place sliced off for me where nothing happened. I did not feel safe there, it was not a refuge, it was a trap, a zone to be negotiated, navigated, where internal rules must be obeyed. It was tense and dangerous.


Go slow, said the rules, take as long as possible.


I now realise I was creating a split in my real world, trying to find a way out of reality, a way that was not dreams and imaginings. I think this desire for getting into nothingness between the gates is probably linked to my desire to write fiction. And is also linked to the fact that I found myself to be in Tasmania. I am not even sure how it is linked to these matters, but I see the person who went into the special slice of nowhere after school as being closely related to the person who now writes stories. When you write fiction you go somewhere – but you know it is really nowhere.


Some of the narratives of my fiction are supposed to be located in Tasmania, and I believe that all of them are affected in some way be the tales I have told you of my early perceptions. If I have time to read you a little, I will read to you a section from my novel The Bluebird Café. (page 148) This novel is set in Tasmania. I think the narrative bears out much of what I have just said. The central problem of the narrative is the disappearance from her bedroom in the middle of the night of a small girl. This is a very recognisable Australian narrative. White Australians, the descendants of the ones who colonised or invaded the land only two hundred years ago, have a deep terror that the weird wild inhospitable land itself is going to snatch their children and swallow them up, or that a stranger or a wild animal will take them and kill them and eat them. Australian literature and art frequently returns to the location of this fear. In writing fiction I am in part giving a geography to the Hills of Nowhere.











1803_ks_flawles_love_midi_dress_emerald_green_nh_26196-edit_2.jpgMaggie had sometimes wondered about Dom’s love life – as if they had ever been an item – he was always the boy next-door – the paling fence between the old Californian bungalows in Ashburton was full of gaps big enough for them to move easily back and forth. Children always on a mission to derive the most fun out of life from dawn to dusk and afterwards. Both the youngest in families where the older ones had grown up and disappeared into the adult world. They had a string rigged up between their bedrooms and sent messages and lollies down the wire. They were a scary pair of ghosts at Halloween. One Christmas they had climbed the peppercorn in Maggie’s garden and strung coloured lights connected to Maggie’s father’s shed across to the gum tree in Dom’s garden. In high summer the front gardens were a riot with purple jacaranda, scarlet flame tree, golden silkyoak and the smell of dust and hot hot sun on dry dry gum leaves. Quite often they smoked behind the cypress hedge. In the evenings the smoke and smell of barbecues – the sun goes down and the barbecue aprons come out – shouts and laughter and slabs. They rode their bikes together around the streets and down to the swimming pool – were often in the same class at school. Dom was good at Maths and Maggie was good at English – they did their homework together, working out just how much they could swap and get away with it. They always got away with it.  There was a particular part of the roof at the side of Dom’s place where they would climb up and take turns in jumping off. It was called ‘catch me’ and sometimes ‘catch me if I fall’. Maggie’s mother was nervous and said she shouldn’t play it, but Maggie and Dom took no notice. They ruined a prized clematis, smashing it as they fell backwards together – and Maggie broke her arm and they were in serious trouble. The words ‘catch me if I fall’ Dom wrote on her paster in red and green pen, and these were the words they often said when they parted to go their different ways – little ways at first – then big ways in life.


Seven years before, on her twenty-first – a rowdy affair in the back garden – Dom gave Maggie a silver necklace with a pendant – a jointed fish, articulated, and a slender key that dangled and clinked against the fish. She was wearing the pendant now, slipping the fish between her thumb and forefinger, bending it slightly this way and that, as she sat at the bar of La Vache Qui Rit on John Street New York, waiting for Dom. Late breakfast at La Vache Qui Rit.

On this bright sunny morning, clean and even sparkling,  Maggie was wearing a crisp white shirt and designer jeans – feeling good. Back in the hotel room was the new green dress she planned to wear later on to dinner. Dinner with Dom – nice. The dress was almost the same shade as the one she had and loved when she was ten – a fresh minty silk, dreamy, soft, low cut and clinging – extra special – Collette Dinnegan – two lls two tts two nns – with incredible silver sandals. To match the fish? Maggie’s freckles had faded as she grew up – her hair had deepened from pale carrot to a kind of caramel. Dom had never called her Carrots, but plenty of people had. And here she was now in New York Big Apple for an interview at Vogue.Imagine, me, Maggie, writing for Vogue New York. Why not imagine me?  Sent Dom an email ‘catch me if I fall’. His reply ‘meet you at vache for breakfast’. He was, his mother said, currently seeing a woman in banking – Dom worked in the world of finance – lived in a brownstone in Jackson Heights. It’s a bit obvious and mad to say all this was a long way from the jacaranda-silkyoak-flametrees of Ashburton, but, well, it was, wasn’t it. A long way. That word brownstone made little shivers shiver behind Maggie’s eyes. A brownstone in Jackson Heights his mother had said. And his mother didn’t even really know exactly what that meant.


Maggie was on her second cup of coffee – the clatter and buzz of La Vache Qui Rit – wait here to be seated the waiter told her – Dom would soon be on his way – the image of the green dress in the hotel closet – once they had done that thing kids do with razor blades and wrists – tiny beads of blood mingled – murmurs beside the fish pond of forever and ever after and race you to the gate. His mother said the woman banker was called Shelagh – came from Arizona – Maggie felt old jealousy snipping through her blood – how silly – then the image of the green dress would appear in her imagination like a moth fluttering softly on the clothes line – and she was back in Ashburton and it was Dom’s sixteenth and the parents were out somewhere and all the boys were drinking beer and the girls were into crystal glasses of Midori Illusions – there were UDL cans and cans of Bourbon and Coke – many glasses were smashed, and more than one person threw up in the fish pond and yes the fish probably died as a result. It was a party that became famous all around the neighbourhood – the night the Golding boy and his friends set fire to the paling fence. Dom got with revolting Shona Jones, and Maggie was deep in misery but not supposed to show it – she was nothing to Dom he was nothing to her – except they were deep down everything and never to be separated. Blood forever. Childish pledge. It was crazy how Shelagh from Banking and Shona from Glen Iris flipped in and out of Maggie’s mind’s eye and darted up and down her heartstrings as the waiter refilled her cup for the third time with beautiful coffee – Dom was standing in the doorway of Shelagh’s office. Dom was smiling his crooked smile – he was holding out his arm and they crossed wrists, Dom and Shelagh, and big beads of bright blood mingled and a drop fell on white carpet – did they have white carpet in offices in Banking – well where was Shona Jones now – not planning to go to the office of Voguein a dark suit and Manolo Blahniks at two pm and doubtless-probably-possibly-maybe-perhaps get a job on the staff – but what did it matter where Shona was when Shelagh was in her office looking out over Manhatten mingling her horrible rich-successful blood with the sweet blood of Dominic Golding in Finance. Blood that also ran blp-blp blp-blp in Maggie’s veins. Except for all it mattered, Shona and Shelagh were one and the same – get over it, Maggie Willis, get over yourself – go and be seated like an adult and order – what – a panier pour un or a panier pour deux? Deux? Deux? Chausson aux pommes? Tears were starting to well up in her eyes. Damn. Prickle prickle stupid tears. She was lonely, she was alone in New York, she was Maggie from Ashburton and she was being stood up by bloody Dom Golden from number twelve and who did he think he was – she would have to SMS him soon – she couldn’t stand this – falling apart at the bar in La Vache Qui Rit waiting to be seated. Be seated and get a panier pour deux and eat the lot and throw up in the fishpond at Vogue. One of the fishponds at Vogue.

Come to think of it what was really holding him up – jealousfantasy aside? If he didn’t come soon the waiter was no doubt going to give up on his ‘wait here to be seated’ and Maggie was going to slink sadly off into the thrum and hype of John Street. Send him an SMS? So what was she? Tryhard? Loser? Was she going to interrupt him in the middle of a sudden early morning emergency meeting or a sudden bloodbrother ceremony or worse (worse) with Shelaghinbanking. The mintygreensilkdress was beginning to droop on its clothes line – the gentle breeze had dropped and the mothlike folds of the winglike sleeves began to resemble an old school dress scrunched in a ball and stuffed into a backpack with old banana skins and leaking felt pens. To tell the truth Maggie had always had a problem with waiting – in spite of her carefree childhood among the flame trees and the barbecues and the Midori Illusions, anxiety was actually her thing – Dom was chronically unpunctual – she knew that, didn’t she – yes but yes but. He was late. Bloody hell, he was late.

So Maggie sat there fingering the lovely little silver fish and the dear little silver key on the thin silver chain around her neck. She was starting to stress out on all the caffeine – she half composed the message in her head, half serious, half jokey “got here early – waiting to be seated – catch me if i fall” – and took out her phone.

This was at precisely eight forty-six – it said so on her phone – and that was when the first plane hit the first tower. In the riot, confusion and hysteria that broke out all around her Maggie never sent the message. And at eight fifty-six her phone rang.  It was Dom, an SMS.

“its ok im in the other tower”

It was the last message Dom Golding ever sent – and the ash that went through the hotel destroyed the minty green dress too.



“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


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


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.”




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


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.




(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


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


‘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.’


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?’


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.’


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)